Why UM-Duluth faculty are uneasy about program evaluations, cuts

Why us now -- and why this way? (UMD)

By many measures, the scrutiny that the University of Minnesota - Duluth is putting itself under sounds sweeping.

Budget problems have prompted campus officials to carry out a wholesale evaluation of all programs and services this fall so they can decide which ones they may have to cut or scale back. The university will scrutinize both academic and nonacademic areas.

It's a selection process that some unionized faculty fear will put administration over academics. Although they have no proof the administration will disproportionately ax programs, they fear the process has been rushed with an eye too geared toward the academic bottom line.

And they question why Duluth is cutting its budget at a time when the financial crisis appears to have largely passed at other campuses.

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"We're at that general sense of unease and concern," said Michael Pfau, president of the University Education Association - Duluth.

A university spokeswoman said she would try to reach UMD officials to comment.

In an early June campus email, Chancellor Lendley Black announced the university would undergo "program prioritization."

In it, he said:

"We will closely examine the programs, courses, and services that we deliver to see how they align with our mission and how they position UMD for growth.  The goal of this initiative is to use limited financial resources in ways that will best meet the needs of our students and our community."

He said officials would evaluate elements such as "quality, demand, reputation, and many other areas."

The chancellor wrote that the evaluations came amid financial pressures:

This initiative is timely given lower state funding over time, a decline in last year’s new student enrollment, a challenging economy, and a shrinking Minnesota high school student population.

In a speech to faculty and staff in August, Black said the university needed to craft a budget that was $12 million -- or 8 percent -- less than its current budget.

"Although this is a significant amount of money, it is manageable considering our overall budget, and we don't have to solve this problem in one year," he told employees.

Instead, Black said, cuts would happen over three to five years.

He said the initiative "is not only focused on cutting budgets. This process will also help us determine which programs need additional resources. We will continue to invest in new programs or strengthen programs in areas of particular excellence, or where we have a unique niche, or where student demand is great."

History professor and union official Scott Laderman said instructors have been helping determine the criteria used in the assessment. And he said top campus officials have given no indication that they will cut disproportionately from academic programs.

But he said faculty were not consulted about the move to prioritize programs. He said Black's June announcement to the campus surprised faculty, and came at a time when many were on break from the campus.

Laderman said he fears faculty participation may inappropriately "legitimize" the cuts:

"... And we're also sanctioning this rushed, hasty process that I think is going to be used to basically justify cuts to those academic programs. So in effect it's seeking faculty sanction of a process that ultimately is going to be used to harm both faculty and students."

Underlying much of faculty concern is confusion over why the university is experiencing budget problems now.

Union President Pfau told me:

"We're especially concerned, because we're accustomed to going through these budget crises during the years of continual cuts in funding from the legislature. But here we finally have a year when we have funding flattening out or even increasing a little bit, and [yet] we're still in a budget crisis mode.

And so there's  a general concern of: 'What has gone wrong that means that our campus is still in a budget crisis when other campuses apparently ... have smoothed out a bit?"