At first glance, the decision by the UNC Board of Governors to terminate 46 degree programs across the 17-school system seems mundane: Board members and system administrators were quick to emphasize that the closures would have little concrete impact. The affected programs had low enrollment. Many will be fused with other degree tracks.
Yet North Carolinians have every reason to worry. In recent years, the state has witnessed an unprecedented attack against public education. So-called “program productivity” reviews are grist for the mill of higher education’s critics and contribute to education’s diminishing status as a public good.
Performance reviews of UNC programs were mandated by the General Assembly in 1993. The first review took place in 1995; subsequent reviews have occurred biennially. The rationale is that they enhance academic quality. UNC’s 2013 strategic plan states that “program efficiencies” make the system “more nimble, efficient, and responsive” in fulfilling its mission of teaching, research and public service.
John Maynard Keynes once observed that the world is full of practical people believing themselves “quite exempt from any intellectual influence,” yet who are in fact the “slaves of some defunct economist.” Program productivity has its own guru. He’s not quite an economist, nor is he defunct. His name is Robert Dickeson, an education consultant and former university president. In 1999, he published “Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services,” a “how-to” book on program cutting. When it was reissued in 2010 after the financial crisis, the book, along with its signature concept – “program prioritization” – was embraced by administrators desperate for tips on governing campuses ravaged by budget cuts. “Program prioritization processes” were launched across the UNC system, notably at Appalachian State, N.C. State, Western Carolina and East Carolina.
Clearly, universities must adapt to a new economic reality. So what exactly is wrong with the administrative mantras of “program prioritization” and “productivity review”?
First, program prioritization creates an unhealthy climate
in which academic departments must engage in a struggle for existence, in which concern for “data” often trumps educational priorities. According to Leo Groarke and Beverley Hamilton of the University of Windsor, program prioritization is “a process designed to decide whether (departments will be) winners or losers in an ongoing battle for shrinking resources.”
Second, program prioritization can easily become a front in the war on educators. While president of the University of Northern Colorado in the 1980s, Dickeson pioneered his ideas about program prioritization by firing 47 faculty members, pleading financial exigency. Yet within a year, Northern Colorado was advertising 28 new positions, suggesting the policy was really a ploy to get rid of unwanted professors. In his book, Dickeson cites “faculty resistance” as an obstacle to program prioritization, as the latter violates “the egalitarian ideology of higher education.” UNC has not used it in this way, but downsizing belongs to this policy’s DNA.
Third, program prioritization’s efficiency is debatable at best. A dirty secret of the academic world is that while university leaders steeped in management-speak pay lip service to “efficiency,” they employ costly and cumbersome armies of administrators and middle managers. According to the BOG’s own report, a team of “six staff across multiple units in Academic Affairs reviewed, analyzed, and discussed” each of the 221 programs flagged as unproductive. Then, the “review team met over a period of four weeks in early 2015” to (among other things) “develop a plan for additional interactions.” What are the real and opportunity costs of this administrative boondoggle? Can UNC afford such “efficiency”?
Fourth, and most importantly, program prioritization sits uneasily with the American educational system’s core value: the conviction that a healthy democracy requires an educated citizenry. After the decision, BOG member Steven Long explained: “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is.” How different Long’s view of education is from John Adams’, who observed in 1765: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right ... and a desire to know.”
Yes, we live in a capitalist economy. But our educational system has succeeded because it embraces a different ideal: that in investing in education, we’re investing in the common good, in a fairer and more just society. Let’s hope that our state leaders, as they embrace the latest management fad, do not lose sight of this crucial goal.
Michael C. Behrent is an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University in Boone.