Focusing our academic mission

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Frequently Asked Questions
What is “academic program prioritization?”

Academic program prioritization is a process through which the university is conducting a comprehensive examination of the academic programs that it offers in order to assess the quality and productivity of those programs, as well as their connections to the university’s mission and strategic directions. Through the process, the university is able to determine the best allocation of resources to ensure that the institution remains as academically strong as possible and aligned with the mission of improving individual lives and enhancing economic and community development.

Why is the university going through an academic program prioritization process?

Institutions of higher education should engage in a systematic process of program prioritization as a part of the normal order of business. At WCU, however, we have not done so since the 2000-01 academic year. Simply put, it was time for the university to take stock of its academic programs. In addition, the university has absorbed more than $32 million in cuts to state funding since 2008-09. Further reductions are possible. As called for by the university’s strategic plan, we do not have the resources to do everything we would like to do, or to be all things to all people. We must take a hard look at all of our functions, including academic programs, in order to make informed decisions about how to make use of limited resources toward the goal of maintaining the growth, vitality and excellence of the university and WCU’s ability to serve students and the people of North Carolina. We are not alone in this endeavor; sister institutions across the University of North Carolina system are engaged in a similar process. Some of them – North Carolina State University, East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro – have completed academic program review and prioritization, and, in fact, provided helpful information to those engaged in the process at Western Carolina University. Appalachian State University also conducted academic program review during the 2012-13 academic year.

Is there a connection between academic program prioritization and the university’s strategic plan?

Definitely. Academic program prioritization is called for by the university’s strategic plan, “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future,” and has been deemed so important to the future of the institution that it is the subject of the very first initiative of the very first goal of the very first strategic direction of the “2020 Vision” plan. That initiative calls for the university to “undertake a rigorous and inclusive process to prioritize all undergraduate and graduate programs based on universally applied criteria, including quality, regional need, demand, enrollment trends, retention and graduation rates, and alignment with the university mission and the following integrated curricular focus areas: creative arts, education, environment, health, innovation and technology, and recreation and tourism.”

Who was involved in the process?

The process was a faculty-led endeavor guided by the Academic Program Prioritization Task Force, which is composed of faculty, students and academic administrators representing a broad array of experiences, perspectives and disciplines. Appointments to the task force were made by Provost Angi Brenton based on nominations solicited from department heads, the Council of Deans, Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and the Student Government Association. The task force was co-chaired by the provost and Vicki Szabo, associate professor of history. Mark Lord, who was interim associate provost at the time, served as proxy co-chair when Provost Brenton became gravely ill and continued in that role after her passing on May 8. A complete list of task force members can be found here.

What factors were examined?

The task force examined several criteria for each academic program – student retention and graduation rates; number of students majoring in each program and number of degrees conferred; five-year enrollment trends, as well five-year enrollment trends compared with those at other UNC system institutions; the cost of instruction; allocated and generated faculty FTE (full-time equivalent); student credit hours generated; percentage of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty, by fixed-term faculty, by part-time faculty and by other types of instructors; and various quality indicators, including alignment with the university mission and the student experience offered. A complete list of the criteria, along with other important documents that were part of the process, can be found here.

What was the process?

The process began during the fall 2012 semester with research on the topic of program prioritization, by studying academic literature and through comparison with various system, peer and regional comprehensive institutions that have recently undertaken and implemented their own program prioritization processes. The research was used to help define units of review, and choose and define criteria and measures (both qualitative and quantitative) for WCU’s prioritization process. The process relied on consistent and comprehensive data-driven conclusions, with the integration of existing qualitative and quantitative data that was available and that could be assessed reliably. Proposed criteria and measures were discussed in a number of open forums and through various university committees and representative bodies, including the Chancellor's Leadership Council, the Council of Deans, Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and the Student Government Association. During the spring 2013 semester, the process consisted of the collection and review of data, and presentation of preliminary conclusions in numerous open forums. After final recommendations were announced to department heads and deans of programs proposed for discontinuation, Part One of the final report was released on Wednesday, May 22, to Chancellor David O. Belcher. Part One of the report can be found here. A link to information from throughout the process, including presentations and notes, minutes of meetings and a timeline, can be found here.

Were all university academic programs involved?

In effect, yes, all 130 undergraduate and graduate programs (including stand-alone minors) in all academic departments covering all academic disciplines at WCU were reviewed through this process. That said, academic programs that lead to a minor in a discipline and that also have a major in that same discipline were not reviewed separately. Instead, minors were paired with majors in that situation. The process also did not involve certificate programs.

What about the non-academic programs of the university?

Non-academic programs have been scrutinized through a separate organizational structure review process during the 2012 fall semester, which has led to several changes at WCU. Foremost among them was the dissolution of the Division of Advancement and External Affairs and the elimination of a vice chancellor position. Other non-academic changes have included shifting the Office of Alumni Affairs to the Office of Development, the Office of Development to the Office of the Chancellor, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs to the General Counsel’s Office and the Mountain Heritage Center to the Division of Academic Affairs. In addition, the Chief of Staff Office now includes supervision of Communications and Public Relations; a new marketing group to consist of Creative Services, Special Events and the Print Shop; and government relations activities. Among organizational shifts to be effective July 1, 2013, are the relocation of auxiliary operations, including Dining Services, from Administration and Finance to Student Affairs; CatCard operations, the Bookstore and Catamount Clothing, and Cable TV operations from Administration and Finance to Student Affairs; Ramsey Center operations from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance to the Facilities Management unit; and telecom operations from Administration and Finance to Information Technology. These steps were taken to meet “2020 Vision” goals of improving the effectiveness and efficiencies of campus business processes, and to ensure the appropriate leadership and organizational structure necessary in order to fulfill the institutional mission.

What are the results of the process?

A total of 130 academic programs were reviewed during the process. The vast majority of them (96 programs) have been designated as programs to be maintained at existing resource levels. Eight were recommended as programs that should be designated for potential investment and enhanced resources, when those become available. Only 13 programs (two undergraduate minors, four undergraduate majors and seven graduate-level programs) were recommended to be discontinued. In addition, eight programs (one undergraduate major, six undergraduate minors and one graduate program) will voluntarily discontinue operations. Five programs (one minor, two undergraduate programs and two graduate programs) have been recommended to develop action plans to address weaknesses identified by the task force or face recommendation for discontinuation.

What programs were recommended to maintain the status quo, and what does that mean?

The task force listed a total of 96 programs as functioning at appropriate levels and recommended those programs be maintained “as is.” The task force found that these programs are doing a solid job teaching students, are exhibiting stable enrollment growth, and are an important part of the university. A complete list of these programs can be found in the final report.

What programs were recommended for enhanced resources, and what does that mean?

Eight programs, six at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level, were assessed as “truly exceptional and high-performing.” They are bachelor’s degree programs in emergency medical care, environmental science, natural resource conservation and management, nursing, parks and recreation management, and recreational therapy; and master’s degree programs in communication sciences and disorders, and social work. The task force found that these programs are exceeding expectations, are in high demand by students, and/or are extremely well-aligned with the university’s strategic direction and mission. However, it is important to keep in mind that a program’s inclusion on this list does not automatically signify that it will receive additional resources. Rather, this simply means that a program has priority status for any new resources that may be directed to the university in the future.

What programs were recommended for developing an action plan, and what does that mean?

They are an undergraduate minor in residential environments; undergraduate majors in middle grades education and in stage and screen; and master’s programs in chemistry and in elementary and middle grades education. These programs must develop a plan for improvement that, over the span of one to two years depending upon the program, addresses problems identified during the review process.

What programs were recommended for discontinuation, and what does that mean?

Minors in broadcast sales and women’s studies have been recommended for discontinuation. Undergraduate programs in German, Spanish, Spanish education, and motion picture and television production have been recommended for discontinuation. Master’s degree programs in teaching English as a second/foreign language and to speakers of other languages, applied mathematics, mathematics education, music, music education, and health and physical education also have been recommended for discontinuation. The task force found that these programs have a declining number of student majors, are below the university average for student retention and graduation, are costly to operate, and/or are not closely aligned with the university’s mission and strategic direction. The eight programs that will be voluntarily discontinued are undergraduate minors in American studies, Appalachian studies, broadcast telecommunications engineering technology, digital communications engineering technology, earth sciences and multimedia; an undergraduate program in business designed as a second major for non-business students; and a master’s degree program in chemistry education.

Will any academic programs being recommended for discontinuation be closed right away?

No. First of all, until the task force’s recommendations are accepted, these are just recommendations. Second, the process of closing an academic program is very complex and will take time to implement. The amount of time will vary from one program to another. Details about the process and timeline for discontinuation of individual programs are forthcoming. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which is WCU's official accrediting agency, has specific requirements for how academic programs are discontinued, with provisions for students, faculty and staff affiliated with those programs. The university will follow all requirements to the letter and will abide by best practices for discontinuing academic programs. Initially, programs that are discontinued will be placed on “inactive status.”

I understand that these are recommendations. Who makes the final decisions?

The final decisions will be made by Chancellor David O. Belcher. Directors of programs that have been recommended for discontinuation will have an opportunity to appeal. Appeals meetings will take place during the week of June 17-21.

What is the timeline for final decisions?

Final decisions will be made after the appeals process is completed, which should be before the end of July. Any decisions that result in the major curtailment or elimination of an academic program are subject to the approval of the UNC system.

What will happen to students currently in programs that are discontinued?

Department heads and academic advisers will work with students to ensure they remain on a path to graduate with a minimal amount of disruption and under an appropriate time frame. Each program will develop an appropriate plan to ensure that students get a high-quality degree and a high-quality experience.

What will happen to incoming students planning to enroll in programs recommended for discontinuation?

Again, it is important to keep in mind that at this point we are talking about recommendations, not final decisions. That said, it is possible that the programs recommended for discontinuation actually may be phased out. The university will notify incoming students about the possibility that their area of study might be discontinued and the options for those students. Incoming students will receive additional information as they go through Orientation and enroll in the university.

What about faculty and staff in those programs? How many jobs will be affected?

The impact on faculty and staff in programs recommended for discontinuation is not known at this point. It is possible that there will be some shifts in responsibilities once decisions are final and are implemented.

How much money will the university save by taking these steps?

Program prioritization is a process that helps the university focus on its core mission and use its resources wisely. The amount of savings is unknown at this point. The university does anticipate the academic program prioritization to result in efficiencies in resources that will play out over time as any affected programs go through a phased process of discontinuation. In addition, program prioritization will enable the university to be more strategic if it faces additional cuts in revenue, in its allocation of existing resources and in its use of any new resources.

If the task force recommendations to discontinue programs are approved, does that mean WCU will no longer offer courses in those academic areas?

The situation will vary from program to program. In the case of graduate-level programs, discontinuation may enable the university to direct resources toward its undergraduate offerings in those disciplines; continuation of some graduate-level coursework in affected programs is possible. At the undergraduate level, the university also would continue to offer opportunities for study in many of these areas, but again the situation will vary by program and the university must consider many different factors (enrollments, minors, liberal studies requirements, support to other programs, etc.). Plans would be forthcoming later this year after decisions are finalized.

Once decisions are final, is it possible that programs could be re-established later?

Although not likely in the short term, it is possible that programs could be re-established in the future. As part of an ongoing academic review process, the university will regularly examine the needs of the region and assess demand for academic programs. In fact, one of the main reasons that an institution should routinely go through the process of program review is in order to remain nimble and flexible in a changing environment to better serve the needs of the region and state.

What would be the impact of these decisions on the degrees of alumni from affected programs?

There should be no impact on the degrees of alumni of programs recommended for closure. Discontinuance of a degree program does not diminish the value of that degree in any tangible way. A degree from a discontinued program is still recognized and accepted by prospective employers and graduate schools. In the past, the university has discontinued academic programs, such as industrial distribution and clinical laboratory sciences, and alumni from those programs have continued to be successful professionals in their fields. Furthermore, academic programs may come and go based upon the needs of the people served by the university but the solid education provided during a graduate’s time at WCU will remain forever. A degree from a specific program does not merely provide training for a specific job. Instead, a degree from a comprehensive institution of higher education provides graduates with the reading, writing and communication skills and the adaptability of a well-educated citizen of the world.

How will the university move forward after final decisions are reached?

An ad hoc Program Prioritization Coordination Committee has been assembled in order to facilitate the university’s communication about and response to the recommendations of the task force and the final decisions of the chancellor. A list of the committee’s members can be found here. In addition, the Division of Academic Affairs will be responsible for the implementation of the final decisions and will convene a Program Prioritization Implementation Task Force later this summer.

Will this be the end of the program prioritization process?

No. Academic program prioritization is not a one-time occurrence. Rather, it will be an ongoing initiative of the university. We will undertake a complete assessment of the process utilized this year to determine improvements to the process as we go forward.

I understand there is a Part Two of the final report? What is that about?

Part Two of the task force’s report will include broader observations about the university, as well as recommendations for future prioritization efforts and ongoing program assessment. Part Two will be released in June. When it is released, it can be found here.

I have more questions. Where do I turn for answers?

If you are a current undergraduate student or a faculty or staff member in an affected program, contact the Office of the Provost at 828-227-7495 or via email at vcacademicaffairs@wcu.edu. In addition, a public forum about the process and the recommendations will be held beginning at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, in the theater of A.K. Hinds University Center.

If you are a prospective undergraduate or transfer student, contact the Office of Admission at 828-227-7317, toll-free at 877-928-4968 or via email at admiss@wcu.edu.

If you are a current or prospective graduate student, contact the director or adviser for your specific graduate program, or the Graduate School at 828-227-7398 or via email at grad@wcu.edu.

If you are a current or prospective distance education student, contact the director or adviser for your specific program, or the Division of Educational Outreach at 828-227-7397, toll-free at 866-928-4723 or via email at distance@wcu.edu.

I would like to make a comment on the process or results. Where should I direct a letter or email?

You can comment through a feedback form on the Program Prioritization website; or send comments to the Office of the Provost, 560 H.F. Robinson Building, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723; call 828-227-7495; or send an email to vcacademicaffairs@wcu.edu.

 

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