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U of M report recommends cuts to College of Liberal Arts

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University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus
Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

With half of the University of Minnesota's 30,000 undergraduates, the College of Liberal Arts is the biggest department on campus.

A report out Monday suggests slimming down the college to keep it strong in a future where resources for higher education are uncertain. 

The college took an $8 million cut to its budget over the last two years. 

Chris Uggen, who heads the university's sociology department, said he thinks now is the time for the college to remake itself. The other option, he said, is to stand by and wait for the next budget ax to drop. 

"That's the road to mediocrity. If we continue to do that, we will slide," he said. "We have to make smart decisions and we have to get out of the current box of thinking that the structure is frozen."

Uggen co-chaired a committee that penned the CLA 2015 report. It lays out goals to keep the College of Liberal Arts viable in a future where resources are slim, especially as the state battles projected budget shortfall of nearly $6 billion. 

The report recommends a reorganization of the college, suggesting it scale back the 60 academic programs it has now. The report doesn't recommend which programs should go.

But that would ultimately mean cuts in staff, and there are limitations on just what can be done. For instance, there are contractual limits on cutting tenured faculty. 

Gary Oehlert, another co-chair on the committee that wrote the report, said reductions would need to come in non-faculty teaching positions, graduate student assistant positions, and some student services. 

"Certain aspect of the budget are more vulnerable than others, I don't think we can sugar coat that," Oehlert said.

The report paints a positive picture of what would remain -- not necessarily fewer students, but fewer programs -- stronger programs that the report calls "programs of distinction". 

That means developing majors that could attract more students from across the U.S. and the world. 

University sophomore Regan Sieck is a member of the College of Liberal Arts student board. Sieck said while the board is behind the report and likes the suggestions, the average student might see a disconnect between rising tuition, and a shrinking College of Liberal Arts. 

"The biggest concern is the students are [going to say], 'Hey, you're charging me more and you're giving me less.'" she said.

Sieck said she realizes the report's goals are a few years out, but she hopes some of the suggestions are implemented now. 

Ed Schiappa, who chairs the communications studies department in the College of Liberal Arts, said the next step in reorganizing the college will be the toughest. 

"The implementation of this is going to be the real challenge. We need to acknowledge that's going to be extremely difficult particularly from a political standpoint," he said.

Other Minnesota colleges are going through the same process of looking at their programs and determining which ones should continue to be offered. 

Both St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University-Mankato are considering dropping dozens of academic programs as a way to prepare for uncertain funding in the future. 

Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project, a non-profit research group in Washington that analyzes higher education funding and spending, said colleges across the country are looking at their academic programs with greater scrutiny than ever before. 

"Not just at annual balancing of budgets," Wellman said. "This is deeper. This is how do we have a sustainable funding model for the future. And that means not just money but what are we trying to deliver?"

The CLA 2015 report is now in the hands of the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Jim Parente, who will decide how and when to proceed with the suggestions.