By Linda Seested-Stanford • Guest columnist
In last week’s Smoky Mountain News, coverage of the reorganization of Western Carolina University’s College of Education and Allied Professions (“WCU budget cuts, reorganization trigger controversy,” March 23, Smoky Mountain News, www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3562) left readers with the mistaken impression that the university faculty is in turmoil because of changes within that academic unit. Although some faculty in the affected departments are understandably upset by the difficult decisions we have been forced to make in dealing with a significant budget shortfall, more members of the campus community are troubled by the tone of the article than they are by the reorganization itself.
As WCU’s chief academic officer, let me assure you that there is no intrigue, no smokescreen and no deep, dark secret in the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions. It’s good stuff for a spy novel, but it’s not happening in the CEAP. Despite the article’s assertion to the contrary, the university is adhering to a philosophy of openness and transparency in efforts in dealing with anticipated cuts in state funding. That spirit of openness and transparency certainly applies to reorganization within the CEAP.
Before any decisions were made regarding changes in the college, a committee composed entirely of faculty members and another committee of department heads (who also are faculty) and unit directors independently discussed potential models of reorganization. These committees made recommendations to the dean, Perry Schoon, who made the final reorganization decision with my full support. In addition to the CEAP reorganization, the Division of Undergraduate Studies also was reorganized, as was the Coulter Faculty Commons. Two other colleges also have discussed possible reorganization scenarios.
Why reorganization? Western Carolina is attempting to deal with the uncertainty of the state budget situation. At this point, we are unsure what our actual budget reduction will be. We estimate it could be anywhere from $8.9 million to almost $25 million. With more than 74 percent of the university’s budget dedicated to salaries, it is important to identify any efficiency that saves jobs. Finding ways to reduce administrative costs through reorganization is one such step. The CEAP reorganization will save an estimated $250,000 and prevent the loss of four faculty jobs.
In addition to asking deans to identify instructional efficiencies, I tasked them with beginning a program prioritization process. They were asked to study individual programs and rate them based on a number of criteria. This process is critically important as we look at reallocating resources in these very tough economic times. Because some colleges could not complete their work before the deadline for reappointment of faculty, I asked the Faculty Senate to grant me additional time to discuss and consider program prioritization with deans. A number of scenarios from various colleges evolved from this process, which may affect tenure track and fixed-term faculty lines – especially if budget reductions exceed 10 percent.
All that said, I understand that institutional changes create feelings of uncertainty, fear and sometimes anger. Academic departments created decades ago develop their own cultures and identities. When faculty colleagues are split up and assigned to other departments, it is natural to see concern and resistance. When studies are done on programs and questions are raised about low productivity and specializations, faculty become concerned about their jobs.
These are justifiable emotions and responses, but these new economic times require all of us to think differently. We must optimize our resources for the benefit of the institution – and the students and community it serves. In last week’s article, some folks referred to this as “bad management.” I call it proactive, strategic and focused on preserving our academic mission.
Although from where I sit the article missed the mark on many levels, it did get one key point exactly right. To quote, “Here’s why this internal debate at WCU should matter to anyone outside academia: The College of Education and Allied Professions is where most of the K-12 teachers, principals and superintendents who serve Western North Carolina receive their training. What happens here, in other words, counts in the region’s classrooms, and will matter to the children in WNC for decades to come.”
Western Carolina was founded as a teacher preparatory institution with a mission of providing an education for the young people of the region and training teachers to serve the mountain region and beyond. That’s why the reorganization in the College of Education and Allied Professions (the unit most closely tied to our founding) took place as it did. By reducing five departments to three and assigning faculty based on the prioritization of programs, steps that will save a quarter of a million dollars in administrative and overhead costs, the college can maintain its focus on its primary mission – teaching our students, including those who will become the teachers of tomorrow.
(Linda Seested-Stanford is interim provost at Western Carolina University.)