Chancellor announces final decisions on WCU academic program prioritization

by Jul 19, 2013COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher announced Thursday, July 18, that the university will proceed with the phased discontinuation of 10 of the 13 academic programs previously recommended by a campus task force for closure.

Belcher also announced that programs in motion picture and television production, Spanish and Spanish education, which had been recommended for discontinuation, will be retained, with program directors responsible for developing action plans to address weaknesses and take steps toward improvement.

Programs that will begin the process of phased discontinuation are a bachelor’s degree program in German; master’s degree programs in health and physical education, mathematics, mathematics education, music, music education and two master’s programs related to teaching English to speakers of other languages; and a minor in women’s studies.

In addition, a total of eight programs have agreed to voluntarily discontinue operations 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.

Belcher has used much of the summer to review recommendations issued in May by the Academic Program Prioritization Task Force, paying particular attention to performance indicators such as program enrollments and enrollment trends; program cohort sizes; individual course section sizes; average class sizes; and retention and graduation trends.

“I have explored quality indicators. I have considered the degree to which programs and their owners – faculty, coordinators, department heads – have been thoughtfully proactive, before the advent of program prioritization, in recruitment and retention efforts, and the degree to which they have been successful,” he said. “I have explored the differences between need in the region and actual demand for Western Carolina’s programs. And I have wrestled with potential impact of program loss.”

Belcher said he decided against discontinuing the program in motion picture and television production in spite of acknowledged high costs because of the quality of its students, successful placement of its graduates in graduate schools and degree-related jobs, and other “impressive quality indicators,” including a gift of a professional-grade camera made by Sony Corp. after the task force issued its recommendations. The Spanish and Spanish education programs were spared, he said, because of the burgeoning Latino population in the region and state and the potential for those programs to be responsive to applied needs in the region.

Those programs slated for discontinuation will not be closed immediately. They will be placed on inactive status and will not enroll any additional students. The university is developing program-specific plans to “teach out” students currently enrolled in those programs, or to help them transition into a similar program at WCU or to another institution, as it follows best practices for the discontinuation of academic programs.

The Academic Program Prioritization Task Force spent the 2012-13 academic year conducting a comprehensive study of the university’s academic programs to assess their quality, productivity and connections to the university’s mission and strategic directions. The faculty-led task force examined all undergraduate and graduate programs as part of an effort designed to give WCU leaders the information they need in order to make decisions regarding the best allocation of limited resources and to ensure that the university remains focused on strong academic programs aligned to its mission.

Program prioritization is part of an overarching university initiative to closely examine all of its operations to ensure that they are functioning as effectively and efficiently as possible during a period of reduced resources from the state. The university has absorbed more than $32 million in cuts to state funding since the 2008-09 fiscal year, and additional reductions are expected this year.

“Western Carolina University cannot be all things to all people. It never could, but the economic climate of the last five years and the resulting budget reductions have made this fact, too often ignored, a blatant reality,” Belcher said. “Our university must focus, ensuring that it does not diffuse its efforts and resources, both fiscal and human, in so many directions that the institution jeopardizes the quality of all of its programs.”

Program prioritization, which is occurring at other campuses of the University of North Carolina system, comes as state funding for UNC institutions is being more closely tied to enrollment and to performance-based measures such as retention rates and graduation rates.

“A decision to discontinue a program does not imply a lack of value for the discipline. It is, rather, a statement about current program reality,” Belcher said.

Decisions to eliminate academic programs are subject to the approval of the University of North Carolina system. Western Carolina also must follow specific guidelines required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, WCU’s official regional accrediting agency.

Belcher accepted all other recommendations as presented by the task force. In addition to programs recommended for discontinuation, the task force recommended that the majority of the 130 programs it studied be retained at current resource levels. Those 96 programs have been categorized as functioning at appropriate levels.

The task force assessed eight programs as “truly exceptional and high-performing,” and designated for potential enhancement as additional resources become available. Those 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 communication sciences and disorders, and social work.

The task force also identified five programs as needing to develop action plans to address weaknesses and take steps toward improvement. 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.

Belcher’s announcement regarding his final decisions does not represent the last chapter in program prioritization at WCU. The university will integrate ongoing program prioritization into its regular cycle of program review, which will draw upon additional recommendations made by the task force related to improvements in the process and the data used for assessment.

Detailed information about program prioritization at WCU, including task force recommendations and final decision reports from the chancellor, can be found online at the website