Is SLU Becoming a Trade School? Academic Portfolio Review, National Trends, and the Case of the University of Tulsa

In his most recent address to the faculty, President Fred Pestello pronounced the need to “right the ship” at SLU. According to the president, this entails pursuing different routes towards growth and development, as the university responds to the “harsh realities” of declining student enrollment, spiraling costs of educating students, flat revenues, increasing expenditures, and budget deficits. The president said that SLU must become more efficient and justify every course offered. “The time has come.”

The administration has acted. In a February 15 email, the Interim Provost announced the “formation of a new Provost led committee, the Academic Portfolio Review Committee,” with the following charge:

With an awareness that the number of degree programs we offer is large for a school of our size (238 to 259), the Provost is convening a committee to engage in the process of Academic Portfolio Review. The Academic Portfolio Review Committee is tasked with the evaluation of all degree-granting programs within the Academic Portfolio of the University in an effort to identify degree programs that are undersubscribed, no longer viable, or appropriate.

The work of the Academic Portfolio Review Committee (APRC) is already underway. Mark Knuepfer, a faculty member in the School of Medicine and chair of the committee, recently sent a memo indicating that the committee will assess “the value and effectiveness of academic degree programs based on metrics and university priorities.” He offered assurances that the committee will “consult with faculty, staff, and students who are affected before finalizing our decision” and aspires “to be transparent and to engage a judicious assessment of our programming.”

On the face of it, assessing “the value and effectiveness of academic degree programs based on metrics and university priorities” seems worthwhile and perhaps necessary. Such an assessment, however, raises the following questions:

  • What is meant by “value and effectiveness”?
  • What are the appropriate “metrics”?
  • Who decides what the “university priorities” are?
  • Who will hold the APRC accountable for being “transparent” and “judicious”?

Without substantive answers to these basic questions, we are not confident that the administration will transform SLU in manner that furthers its mission. Of utmost concern, the Academic Portfolio Review appears to be a major step in the unfortunate direction recently taken by the University of Tulsa, as described by Tulsa faculty member Jacob Howland in the City Journal. Indeed, the radical restructuring of the University of Tulsa began with an eerily similar “Provost’s Program Review Committee (PPRC).”

As indicated by Howland, Tulsa’s PPRC was also “tasked with reviewing all academic programs and evaluating each one across a number of dimensions, including their contribution to the university’s core mission, their trajectory, their outcomes and their financial sustainability.” Faculty were repeatedly assured that the process would be “transparent, inclusive, and data-driven”—sound familiar?

In a subsequent piece in The Nation, Howland relates that the committee “gutted the liberal arts, raised default teaching loads across the university from five courses per year to eight, eliminated all academic departments, created new divisions to house surviving programs (including one called ‘Humanities and Social Justice’), and established a ‘Professional Super College’ consisting of the formerly independent colleges of law, health sciences, and business.”

Unfortunately, early indications give us little hope that the APRC will not transform SLU along similar lines. As noted by Howland, Tulsa’s committee did not include any faculty “from the humanities or the sciences (other than applied ones).” The situation at SLU began with similar problems, including violations of the Faculty Manual. For example, the Interim Provost originally proposed to appoint faculty to the APRC himself, rather than having schools select their own representatives through their assemblies, as required by the Faculty Manual. (The proposal was rejected by the SLU Faculty Senate, and the Interim Provost subsequently allowed school assemblies to select their representatives.)

The SLU Faculty Senate has glimpsed other dangers similar to those posed by Tulsa’s committee. Last spring, the SLU administration presented some of the data it plans to use for the Academic Portfolio Review. It was immediately apparent that the hastily gathered data contained numerous gross inaccuracies. Furthermore, the metrics used by the administration to understand teaching loads, class size, and the value of research and graduate programs were highly dubious.

The administration’s initial actions in implementing the Academic Portfolio Review do not instill confidence that SLU will undertake an enlightened, careful, and rigorous analysis of relevant data. The data—as well as the clear articulation and justification of appropriate metrics in light of SLU’s mission—matter. (We will return to this issue in a later post.) At Tulsa, according to Howland, flawed data and metrics presented to the PPRC fundamentally determined the shape of its final report:

In most cases, the PPRC was effectively limited to considering financial data. Some departments and programs submitted comprehensive, internal academic reviews to the committee; others, including English, Philosophy, and Religion (my home department), Film Studies, Arts Management, and Language and Literature, were scheduled to complete their reviews more than a month after the PPRC made its secret recommendations to Levit [the Provost] in February 2019. Worse, the financial data generated by the PPRC—calculations of total cost per credit hour taught—were prejudicially constructed and rife with errors…Receiving pushback at a faculty meeting, Levit insisted that, while she had not seen the PPRC data, it was accurate to “within 2 percent–3 percent.” (The PPRC ultimately admitted that it had overstated instructional costs for my department by 40 percent.) Levit concluded the meeting with an ominous pronouncement: if faculty could “suspend disbelief,” and if we supported what the administration was doing, there would be a place for us at TU. But would there be a place for the liberal arts?

This is also the central question at SLU. The work of the SLU committee and its final report constitute one of the most significant processes in our institution’s history. Good data (carefully collected and analyzed), as well as transparency, are essential to the process. At this point, much work is needed to improve the quality of the data and metrics that will be used to assess the value of academic programs, as well as the liberal arts more generally, at SLU.

At Tulsa, the PPRC acted quickly and radically. As reported in Inside Higher Education, the committee carried out a nine-month review of the school’s programs, which resulted in a decision to gut the College of Arts and Sciences by transforming 15 departments into three divisions and cutting 32 degree programs. Howland conveys that the committee either cut or made deep cuts to majors in philosophy, religion, Russian and Chinese studies, the natural sciences, business, the law school, theater, musical theater, music composition, instrumental and vocal performance, dance, Greek, and Latin. All Master and Ph.D. programs in art, chemistry, history, and physics were eliminated. It left engineering and health sciences unchanged. In sum, Tulsa was transformed from a liberal arts institution into something like a trade school.

We fear that SLU is going in the direction of Tulsa.

According to Howland, the administration at Tulsa made “crude and short-sighted” decisions that “turned a once-vibrant academic institution with a $1.1 billion endowment and a national reputation in core liberal arts subjects into a glorified trade school with a social-justice agenda.” In a short period of time, Tulsa went from aspiring to be among the top 50 universities in the country to embracing the “modest goal” of being similar to a “public college of local stature” offering “job-ready programs.”

The SLU administration has said that to survive, SLU must respond to student demand. During the last 15 years, SLU appears to have increasingly branded itself as a place for an education in the health care professions. So now, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, SLU generates the demand to which it responds, at the expense of the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, students who have traditionally chosen SLU over less rigorous programs at quality state institutions have begun to enroll at schools that still tout the value of a liberal arts education, such as Creighton, Loyola of Chicago, and Marquette, which SLU administrators now say are the university’s strongest competitors.

Despite apparently losing students to schools that retain a liberal arts emphasis, SLU has already undergone a restructuring led by an attitude of austerity that has begun to starve the liberal arts through salary freezes; hiring freezes; the elimination of graduate, adjunct, and non-tenure track positions; retirement attrition; and attempts to reapportion funding unevenly among academic divisions. At the same time, the university has strayed from valued norms that are designed to protect academic rigor and allowed financial donor influence to occupy a place in academic decisions.

The threats now facing SLU resemble the academic cuts and radical restructuring of program offerings at Tulsa. Howland warns, “Many institutions below the top tier are scrambling to respond to the collapse of the higher-education bubble by jettisoning the liberal arts and pumping up the practical ones: health care, computer science, business, and other technical fields that promise to yield jobs immediately after graduation.” He calls this threat “a perfect storm of trends currently tearing through the American academy.” Howland describes the crisis as both “moral and metaphysical. At stake is whether we will continue to be a liberal university.”

The threat to SLU is also similar to that which faced Wheeling Jesuit University. Wheeling University is a much smaller and newer private university (founded in 1954) that had a traditionally Jesuit and liberal arts curriculum. As reported in Inside Higher Education, in March 2019, Wheeling underwent what the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities called a “major course correction.” It gutted the liberal arts, eliminating all of its majors, while keeping pre-professional programs and athletics. Wheeling did this in response to an economic crisis and declared “financial exigency” as a reason to eliminate arts and sciences positions. The school will now offer seven undergraduate and four graduate majors: “In undergraduate studies, it will offer nursing, respiratory therapy, exercise science, education, business, criminal justice and psychology. It will offer a doctoral program in physical therapy and master’s programs in business administration, education and nursing.”

Inside Higher Education subsequently reported that the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus announced that the reorganization prevented Wheeling from maintaining its affiliation with the Society of Jesus. Wheeling University is thus no longer a Jesuit school.

Although the Academic Portfolio Review at SLU potentially serves a useful purpose, it is not clear what is driving the process or where it is headed, as the leadership of SLU has failed to clearly articulate a strategic long-run plan for the university. Unfortunately, based on what we have seen thus far, what lies ahead appears to be taking the shape of what was done at Tulsa, thereby transforming SLU from a liberal arts institution in the Jesuit tradition into a professional or trade school. We believe that such a transformation would constitute the spoliation of SLU.

Today’s “harsh realities” do not inevitably require that SLU effectively transform itself into a trade school. Instead, we believe that by embracing its liberal arts tradition, SLU will thrive, attracting students by providing a valuable education and serving the community, in accord with its mission. Indeed, the greatest risk that SLU currently faces is overreacting to “harsh realities” by adopting simplistic and myopic austerity policies that have the effect of substantially diminishing the value of a SLU education, especially its liberal arts dimension.

Things are moving fast, making it vital for concerned stakeholders to do all in their power to preserve the liberal arts at SLU and ensure that our university pursues its mission. Please join us in Saving SLU.

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