Jack Sholder, professor and director of the film and television production program at Western Carolina University, helps a student in an editing class. The program was recently “saved” from possible elimination in a round of budget-related curriculum changes at the university. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University. Jack Sholder, professor and director of the Motion Picture & Television Production program (proper and complete name), helping a student in editing class. Photo courtesy of Western Carolina University.

After five years of state budget cuts capped by the latest drop in funding, educators throughout North Carolina’s 16-member state university system are prioritizing, consolidating and trimming academic programs. This is the second of three articles in a series on the ramifications for WNC’s universities. The first in the series, on UNC Asheville, can be found here. Read about Appalachian State University here.

Faced with a continued decline in state support, Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher has recommended that 10 academic programs be phased out.

“A decision to discontinue a program does not imply a lack of value for the discipline,” Belcher stated in a July 19 announcement of his decisions. “It is, rather, a statement about current program reality.”

That “reality” includes the loss of $32 million in state funding since 2008, when serious cuts began, as well as the likelihood of decreased funding through the 2014-2015 academic year, Belcher stated in a WCU press release. His decisions regarding the effected programs must be approved by University of North Carolina system.

WCU and the 15 other UNC system universities are reviewing their academic programs to find any that can be eliminated, consolidated or otherwise modified.

In part, the reviews are a result of efficiency maximization called for in the UNC system five-year strategic plan, “Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina” [PDF], which was adopted in February.

To eliminate redundancies, the plan urged the universities to “develop system-wide guidelines for instructional productivity, better align general education requirements, consider consolidation of certain overlapping programs and make better use of online instruction.”

The UNC system’s general administration is still talking about how to gauge those efficiencies. But at WCU, the metrics will include student retention and graduation rates, Belcher stated. Meeting those goals will influence state funding, he contended.

In making his decisions, Belcher accepted most of the recommendations of WCU’s Academic Program Prioritization Task Force, which was composed of faculty, students and academic administrators. (See a July report from Belcher detailing his full response to those recommendations below.)

Belcher agreed with the task force’s conclusions that eight programs, assessed as “truly exceptional and high-performing,” should be enhanced when more money becomes available. The eight 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 social work and communication sciences and disorders.

Belcher did not accept recommendations that programs in Spanish, Spanish education and motion picture and television production (now known as the film and television production program) be discontinued. Though the performance marks of the Spanish and Spanish education programs are “weak,” Belcher stated, “I strongly believe these programs have enormous potential, particularly in light of the burgeoning Latino population in our region and state.” The motion picture and television production program has healthy enrollment and retention rates and has placed graduates in good jobs and top graduate programs, he said.

Belcher concurred with the task force that five programs need action plans to address weaknesses. Those programs are an undergraduate minor in residential environments; bachelor’s programs in middle grades education, and stage and screen; and master’s programs in chemistry, and elementary and middle grades education.

Six undergraduate minors, one undergraduate major and one graduate-level program have volunteered to discontinue because of low enrollment or similarity to other programs available at WCU. Those programs are undergraduate minors in American studies, Appalachian studies, broadcast sales, 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 master’s degree programs in chemistry education and teaching music.

The programs will not be closed immediately. The university will stop accepting students into the programs and will “teach out” students who currently are enrolled or help them transition into a similar program at WCU or another institution.

The academic program prioritization process was undertaken as part of “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future” [PDF], a strategic plan that WCU’s board of trustees endorsed in June of 2012. The two-part report, an examination of all undergraduate and graduate programs, was meant to give WCU leaders the information they need to decide how best to allocate limited resources and to ensure that the university’s academic programs stay aligned to its mission.

Belcher said the review was also undertaken to ensure that WCU doesn’t diffuse its efforts and resources. WCU will make prioritization part of its regular cycle of program review, he said.

“Program prioritization,” he said, “will be an integral part of our work going forward in order to ensure that we are a focused institution, to ensure that we demonstrate our professed commitment to student success as manifested in excellent retention and graduation rates, to ensure that we offer academic programs of ever-increasing quality, and to ensure that we invest our precious public resources wisely for maximum benefit.”

See Chancellor Belcher’s July 2013 response to the program prioritization recommendations below.

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Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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