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Provost, faculty reflect on current effects of prioritization

PLNU faculty and students are adjusting to prioritization, especially those whose majors will be phased out by 2018, after it sparked controversy at the end of this past academic year.

Looking back at the announcement, Kerry Fulcher – PLNU’s provost and chief academic officer – said he disliked making cuts, but now everyone can breathe a little easier.

“While it was a rough process to go through, I think this one’s a success story,” Fulcher said. “When you look at the news releases that are coming out there and you see the real traumatic sorts of things, even though it was rough and created anxiety because we didn’t know what the end result was going to be, I was relieved at the outcome – I wouldn’t say I was pleased, you’re not pleased when you have to make cuts – but I was relieved at the outcome that was there.”

On April 29, Fulcher announced via email that prioritization would re-house the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and remove the following majors: Theatre, Fashion and Interiors, Romance Languages and Philosophy-Theology, by 2018.

Fulcher said there was no immediate dismissal or termination of faculty jobs. There are fewer than 50 affected students within these majors who will work with advisors to finish out their degrees. This year’s freshmen are the last to take the classes from these majors. Fulcher said there should be no effect on classes this year; the same classes offered last year were offered this year. For some, that may mean independent study or planning classes by semester.

No change was made to the academic department budgets, but the administrative and Physical Plant face cuts. These decisions were made by looking at every budget on campus.

Fulcher said PLNU is not in a financial “state of crisis” as other universities nationwide. Because of this, the university was able to plan for the future more effectively and phase out programs instead of raising tuition.

George Latter, vice president for finance and administrative services, said this 2014-2015 academic year will save approximately $1.2 million for PLNU. The estimated annual savings by the end of three years is $3.3 million. If prioritization did not save that money, student tuition would have increased five to six percent.

“Prioritization is something that healthy organizations do regularly to make sure resources aren’t being wasted and are being focused on the most important things,” Latter said via email. “The results can be painful in the short term, especially if people we care about are affected, but to never go through this process puts the survival of the organization at risk. In making its prioritization decisions, the university took great care to minimize the impact on students, faculty and staff.”

Latter also said for anything to be financially sustainable, a balance must develop between revenues and expenses. For PLNU, this means beginning new programs, growing existing ones with student demand and moving resources to high demand programs.

Fulcher said prioritization is an ongoing evaluation and elimination of old programs for the sake of new ones.

“In order to do those new things, what are the old things that we need to let go of?” Fulcher said. “It’s really easy to start things, but it’s really hard to stop things.”

With PLNU’s strong enrollment and finances, the university avoids raising tuition substantially. Instead, PLNU uses a 7-year financial planning so that more drastic changes don’t have to come in the future.

“We believe PLNU is a special place and think that processes like prioritization are a necessary part of good stewardship,” Latter said via email. “We want future generations to be able to experience the same great university we were privileged to attend!”

During prioritization, qualified faculty were offered an early retirement package. So far, five faculty have left PLNU for reasons unrelated to prioritization and seven accepted the two-year phase out retirement incentive. There is less need to hire adjunct professors which allows the 150 full-time faculty to maintain their full teaching loads.

Karen Sangren, the art and design department chair, said that while prioritization is not easy, this examination of resources has been valuable across campus. Some of the classes in the art department have been “stacked” with freshmen and sophomores to condense classes.

“There is a difficult part of this,” said Sangren. “It isn’t easy to work with fewer resources. It’s harder to be visionary with less but that’s what makes us more creative and ultimately better stewards of tuition while still recovering from the economic downtown.”

Susan DeCristofaro Rogers, department chair and associate professor for Family and Consumer Sciences, runs the fifth largest program on campus with 189 majors. Fashion and Interiors majors will be phased out, but the faculty will stay intact. Family and Consumer Sciences will be housed elsewhere, possibly under the School of Education.

“Obviously I was saddened by this and that is a very true statement; however, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and praying, and I really am focusing on heaven’s view and heaven’s view, I really believe, is us training our students to be God’s hands and feet and to make a difference in this world,” said Rogers.

Paul Bassett, a professor of communication and theatre, was disappointed by the changes, mirroring his students in the theatre major.

“My own perspective is merely of someone who worked thirty-six years (twenty-one years alone) to build a theatre program, only to see the theatre major dismissed as too expensive and not critical enough to the university mission,” said Bassett, who is also the managing and artistic director of Salomon Theatre.

Teachers frustrated with the outcomes, Fulcher said, will have to get used to teaching to show learning and effectiveness. Faculty are creating humanities honors programs, education to new markets and a faculty social ethos committee to build community and focus on fulfilling the university’s mission in the classroom.

“I’ve already sensed a general relief with faculty because the decisions around prioritization have been made and there was kind of a heavy weight – over a two year period – of ‘We don’t know what the outcome’s going to be, so therefore we have anxiety about that,’” Fulcher said. “ Now that the outcomes are known, that just general fear of the unknown is gone, so there’s just a more positive mentality there.”

Fulcher said these changes do not mean PLNU is losing its liberal arts foundation despite concerns to that effect. He does caution, however, that some majors fluctuate based on student interest and the transitioning mindset to view higher education as a means to a job, a “commodification of higher ed.” PLNU is increasingly market sensitive, looking into programs deemed valuable and attractive by students and those that are not.

Read student perspectives on prioritization here.