COLUMBIA — The discussion is just beginning, but time is running out.
At a forum with administrators Friday afternoon, MU faculty voiced concerns and frustrations at the state's order to reconfigure university degree programs. Chief among their worries was that not enough time is being given to decide how exactly to accomplish this. Some faculty expressed uncertainty at how their programs are being evaluated and what process should be followed.
The university must submit a report to the state by Dec. 31 with an inventory of degrees to be eliminated or realigned.
Russian professor and faculty council member Nicole Monnier said some programs will require reconfiguration, but that the process shouldn’t be rushed.
“We’re being set up for greater vulnerability instead of lesser vulnerability," she said.
Provost Brian Foster agreed that the timeline put forth by the state is “impossible,” but said he did not know what MU could do to change it.
Foster said as much communication as possible is needed during the next month between faculty and administrators. He and Chancellor Brady Deaton repeatedly emphasized that it is critical for faculty to begin meeting in smaller groups and discuss “creative” ways to improve programs.
Faculty Council Chairwoman Leona Rubin told faculty, “We can’t make the decision about who those small groups can be. You have to make those decisions.”
She said several deans and department heads have volunteered to serve as facilitators for these meetings.
Aside from the ubiquitous concern over the looming deadline, faculty members expressed a wide spectrum of frustration at the university and the state, with some unsure if their programs could be reconfigured at all.
Members of the humanities department emphasized that disparities between academic disciplines prevented programs from being combined in any way without significantly damaging their quality.
Kristin Schwain of the art history and archaeology department was particularly troubled about how to reconfigure graduate programs in her department. She said that students benefited from the specialized degrees they received from unique departments.
“What’s going to happen to my student who’s coming out of the department of stuff?” she asked.
“I would love to see realignment, but I’m also concerned about them and what makes them marketable.”
Dennis Trout, classical studies department chairman, was one of many faculty who said administrators needed to provide a greater sense of process.
“It’s all very unclear how I’m to spend the next four weeks,” he said.
He said it was not adequate to be told information would find its way to administrators. “How does it get there? What do I do? What do I tell my faculty?”
Deaton and Foster were hesitant to provide specific guidelines for faculty to follow.
“I’d like to keep the discussion open enough that we can facilitate effective communication,” Foster said.
Deaton said faculty’s final responses didn’t have to be entirely fleshed-out ideas, but he asked that they be as specific as possible.
Animal sciences professor Bill Lamberson said his department went through a reconfiguration in the past and was stronger as a result.
“These are conversations that in the long run can benefit all programs,” he said. “I think this is a good process.“
The discussion took nearly two years, Lamberson said.
In an Oct. 29 report to the state, Deaton stated MU has identified two programs to be closed and another three projected to be closed. In a Nov. 1 report, he stated that the university would carry out more eliminations or reconfigurations, resulting in a total of 12 fewer degrees being offered.
After a faculty member asked where that “magic number” came from, Deaton said the number was a judgment made by the university based on an initial overview of the programs. Even so, he said the number was “arbitrary.”
In an interview following the meeting, Foster said the state asked the university to provide a specific number.
“It was not an option not to give a number,” he told faculty.
He and Deaton said the purpose of the reconfiguration discussion was not to create further savings, but to strengthen smaller programs to improve their quality.
"We're trying to find ways to deal with negative outcomes of savings we already achieved,” Foster said. In particular, a hiring freeze has left several departments with limited “critical mass,” he said.
Faculty and administrators agreed that those smaller programs should not be referred to as “low-producing.” Moreover, several faculty argued that smaller programs were being singled out, and larger programs should be included in the process.
Foster said he hoped further discussion will result in a consensus by the middle of December.
"Whether we can (agree) or not,” he said, “we're going to have to submit some kind of list."
Any significant program changes would take a year or two to implement, Foster said.