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The Academic Portfolio Review Process Needs to Be Halted

This post is a recent memo from four SLU faculty members concerning the Academic Portfolio Review process.

To: Fred Pestello, President; Michael Lewis, Interim Provost; Members of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee; Members of the Board of Trustees

From: Antony Hasler, Associate Professor of English; David Rapach, Professor of Economics; Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, Professor of Theological Studies; Penny Weiss, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies

Date: July 31, 2020

Re: Academic Portfolio Review

This memo expresses our concerns regarding the ongoing Academic Portfolio Review (APR) process. The process formally began with a February 15, 2019 email from Chet Gillis, interim provost at that time, announcing the formation of an Academic Portfolio Review Committee “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.” Chet Gillis recently resigned as interim provost, so that the task is currently being led by the new interim provost, Michael Lewis.

The charge as stated implies that programs and faculty positions will be eliminated. Some of those programs may play vital roles in the quality and distinctiveness of the educational experience traditionally provided by the university, both because they are valuable for their own sakes and/or because they complement other programs. As a result, APR has potentially profound implications for the mission and vision of Saint Louis University and our intellectual community. Because the very nature of our institution is at stake, for the following reasons, the APR process should be put on hold:

  • It is inadvisable and inappropriate to undertake the APR process under an interim provost. The process began under an interim provost and now continues under another interim provost. Instead, a process with major implications for the university needs to take place under a permanent provost, who has been selected as the result of a national search with appropriate faculty input.
  • It is imprudent to carry out the APR process in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The university faces a myriad of uncertainties due to the pandemic, including whether we will be able to hold in-person classes or will need to move to fully online instruction. In the current environment of extreme uncertainty and student dislocation, we cannot expect to make suitably informed evaluations of academic programs.

It is unwise to engage in activities such as APR that shape the nature of the university under interim administrators. Interim administrators are not selected according to the normal process of shared governance specified in the Faculty Manual (Section III.H.7). To promote shared governance, the manual specifies that “a search committee typically is appointed and a national search process initiated at or near the same time that the interim appointment is made.” However, a national search process was not initiated in a timely manner when Nancy Brickhouse, the most recent permanent provost, resigned in August of 2018, and the role of chief academic officer of SLU has been filled with interim appointments for nearly two years. Initiating and proceeding with the APR process under interim provosts is a strong signal that it is an effort to shape the nature of the university in a largely top-down manner, rather than through a process of meaningful shared governance that supports the vision of SLU held by the university community.

When Chet Gillis became interim provost, one of his first acts was to remove the power of the Academic Program Review Committee to recommend funding for academic programs. Shortly thereafter, he announced the creation of the new Academic Portfolio Review Committee. These decisions were made without substantive faculty consultation—further evidence of a top-down, paternalistic approach. (In addition, the new committee appears to be duplicating much of the work already being done by departments and colleges as part of the annual Academic Program Review process for external accreditation upcoming during the 2021–2022 academic year.)

The administration and board might object that all that is happening now is that data are being gathered, which will be valuable for the next permanent provost. However, data gathering is not an isolated or independent exercise performed in a vacuum. It is informed by what one seeks to learn, by the questions one asks, and by the values guiding the endeavor. Indeed, because substantive engagement with faculty was critically absent at the start of the APR process, faculty have understandably questioned the relevance and reliability of the data being gathered and used to evaluate programs.

Finally, we need to re-examine the legitimacy of the APR process itself. Consistent with a top-down approach and a lack of shared governance, the APR process came “out of the blue.” Despite the implications for the academic quality of the university, to our knowledge, there were no substantive formal discussions with faculty about the need for such a process, not to mention how to credibly assess programs in terms of the appropriate values and metrics. The University of Tulsa underwent a similar process recently, which resulted in its transformation from an institution with a distinguished liberal-arts tradition into something more like a professional or trade school. SLU is at risk of being transformed in a similar manner, especially since the APR process began with a critical absence of meaningful shared governance.

The APR process should be put on hold until a permanent provost has been hired and we are past the COVID-19 crisis. Even then, we need to re-examine the legitimacy of the APR process. Going forward, we should only proceed with major initiatives once they can be fully informed by a vision of SLU that is broadly held by the university community. The work of generating a shared understanding of vision must come first, and it must be done through a process of substantive consultation with faculty assemblies, the Faculty Senate, and the broader community.

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