Faculty and students react to list of "low-producing" degrees

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 | 7:32 p.m. CDT; updated 11:37 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 7, 2010

COLUMBIA — MU faculty, administrators and students whose programs were included in a list of 75 “low-producing” degrees warranting review said they don't fear being cut but instead see an opportunity to make constructive evaluations.

The list, which became public Monday, identifies programs that fail to meet Missouri Department of Higher Education thresholds for average numbers of graduates over a three-year period. Although the list might carry negative connotations, most are choosing to look at it from a different vantage point.

“I think it’s a healthy thing to go through and do self-assessment of a program,” geology department chair Kevin Shelton said.

MU, like other public colleges and universities across the state, has until Oct. 21 to evaluate the programs and report its findings to the higher education department. Sixty-three of the 75 programs on the list are either master's or doctoral programs.

George Justice, dean of the MU Graduate School, said the list does not reflect negatively on the school.

There are many important factors other than numbers that indicate the success of the programs, Justice said, citing job placement and the service graduate students provide as teaching assistants as examples.

“This data is important to look at in terms of trying to understand the role of those programs on campus,” Justice said, adding that the evaluations will challenge faculty to become more creative.

Shelton said that in the case of the geological sciences programs, it is important to consider the department's size. Within the past few years, the program has graduated fewer than two doctoral students on average rather than the cutoff number of three, but Shelton said the program as a whole is "vigorous and alive."

The graduate program in geology has 35 students now; that's the largest number in the past two decades. And of those 35, 22 work in assistant positions funded by grants obtained by the department’s 14 faculty members.

“That’s a huge success story,” Shelton said.

Geological sciences faculty met Tuesday to focus on articulating the value of the program and evaluating what is being done right and what needs improvement.

Rose-Marie Muzika, professor and chair of the Forestry Department, agreed that enrollment and graduation numbers can be misleading.

The programs are about “quality not quantity,” Muzika said. The department's goal, she added, is to produce high-quality graduates.

“The program has variation in the number of graduates each year,” she said, “so looking at a snapshot of three years is not appropriate.”

MU's forestry program is the only one at a major research university in the lower Midwest. Muzika said cutting the program would be a loss not only to MU but to the region.

The master’s in geography program is also on the evaluation list, but Geography Department Chair Joseph Hobbs said the program is not underperforming. A look at the past 10 years, he said, shows an average of about six graduate students per year, more than the cutoff number of five. Hobbs said one slow year brought the average down.

MU has the only master’s in geography program in Missouri, and because there are no doctoral programs in the state, it is the leading geography degree program. MU geography also houses the state’s spatial data and is “a hub of contract work,” Hobbs said.

“When it comes to top-quality research in the discipline in the state, people come to us,” Hobbs said.

The number of graduates does not reflect the geography program’s cross-disciplinary impact, Hobbs said. Students in other majors, such as education, are required to take geography classes to graduate.

“We are hugely important to the mission of the university,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said geography involves much more than rivers and capitals, and people often come to the department with cultural questions.

“We educate the citizens of Missouri about how the world works,” Hobbs said.

Foreign language programs also are on the list, including the bachelor's and master's degrees in German, the bachelor's degree in Russian and the master's degree in Russian and Slavonic Studies. Timothy Langen, chair of the German and Russian departments, noted that the evaluations are simply a review. He said his department offers a lot to students.

“I really think that what we offer is crucial to the mission of the university,” Langen said. “We are preparing students with a high level of cultural and linguistic knowledge.”

Langen emphasized how his department helps students when they graduate.

“In a more academically significant way, training people to think is really why programs such as the German and Russian BA and MA program have always been central to universities,” Langen said. “You are learning about the world that’s different from you. (It’s) designed to make you a more orderly and stronger thinker.”

An option for low-producing degree programs is to integrate several smaller programs into one.

The Division of Plant Sciences formed the plant, insect and microbial sciences master’s and doctorate degrees in 2005. By merging the agronomy, entomology, horticulture, and plant pathology master's and doctoral programs, only one graduate program actually exists.

The list of “low-producing” degrees to be evaluated includes all of those except plant pathology. Mike Collins, director of the Division of Plant Sciences, said that when the programs were merged, students were no longer admitted to the smaller, preceding programs. So the proper tally for the merged program would be to add together the numbers of students enrolled in the formerly separate programs.

“Our average master’s graduation rate over the period between 2007 and 2010 is 9.8, almost twice the minimum,” he said. “PhD is 8.3, nearly three times the minimum.”

Collins said he doesn’t think they should actually be on the list.

“For us, our faculty had the foresight to complete the actions that this analysis is pursuing some years ago,” he said. "Our appearance on the list would suggest to some that we have a problem, but we don’t feel that we do.”

Collins said the department will take whatever steps needed to remedy the situation.

The undergraduate program in agricultural journalism also is on the list, which shocked Julia Shuck, who is pursuing that degree. After speaking with advisers from the school, Shuck said she is sure there is nothing to worry about.

“The equation has nothing to do with the job placement rate.” Shuck said, “Ag journalism has had a 100 percent job placement rate in the past five years.”

Shuck said another strength of the program is that it combines studies in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources with those of the School of Journalism.

Agricultural journalism is a “two-pronged degree” with incredibly strong alumni support. Shuck said that advisers are not worried, detailing that the program as a whole has been growing in the past few years.

“Programs will need to be looked at holistically,” Shuck said. “Right now just the numbers are being looked at, but the numbers are misleading because overall the program’s quality is what needs to be evaluated.”  

While some professors are concerned with the negative impact of the list, Justice maintains that the positive outcome outweighs the negative.

“It’s a wake-up call for faculty to seriously consider the future of their field,” Justice said, “and how they can collaborate on higher education.”

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