Provost seeks to reduce programs’ size, limit number of students’ majors, minors

Lower enrollments require finding way to cut costs; faculty raise concerns about impact

Originally, Baldwin Wallace had planned to increase its undergraduate population to 3,150 students by 2020. Now, in the wake of enrollment difficulties, the school expects that number to shrink to 2,700.

That leaves Provost Steve Stahl with a problem to solve.

“We have to find a way to cut expenses,” said Stahl. “In academic affairs, the vast majority of what we expend our money on is the number of sections we teach, so we have to find a way to cut the number of sections we teach.”

There are a number of different approaches schools can take to eliminating sections, ranging from cutting majors and minors to increasing section sizes; however, Stahl said that he does not think BW’s solution lies in a single approach.

He said he wants to find a solution for BW that allows the school to maintain the “full breadth” of its academic offerings while still focusing on the quality of the student experience.

Stahl’s proposed solutions include reducing the number of credit hours required for majors across campus and also placing restrictions on the number of credentials that students can have active at a time.

Stahl said that he thinks some majors have become inflated over the years as new material is added to the older content rather than replacing it. He said he views the sciences as a good example of majors that are continually reviewing and replacing older content with new material.

“What the sciences have been able to do a good job of is as new material has gone in, they’ve had to decide what to take out,” said Stahl. “I think in other programs, we have allowed the size of the majors to grow. New material comes in to keep current, we expand, but we haven’t argued about what to take out.”

BW’s majors are “about the same size” as majors at similar schools, said Stahl, while “the better liberal arts colleges” tend to have larger majors in the liberal arts and social sciences. Stahl also noted that programs with external accreditation, such as majors in the Conservatory and in education, “tend to be behemoths.” The Conservatory is home to some of the largest programs on campus, with many majors requiring 90 or more credit hours. For comparison, nearly 40 programs have less than 50 credit hours.

Stahl said the size of the major is not necessarily indicative of its quality. There are a number of benefits to reducing the sizes of majors, he said, including freeing time for faculty to have more interaction with students outside of the classroom and allowing students to take more free electives outside of their major area of study.

Stahl said that these free electives will allow students to get the broad liberal arts education that will set them up for success in a rapidly changing world.

“I will argue until I’m blue in the face that the liberal arts are more important now than they ever have been in the past,” said Stahl. “It’s a thousand-year-old system — you could argue it needs some updating — but what it does now is it prepares students for a changing world better than anything else.”

Not all faculty members have embraced Stahl’s proposed changes, however.

Dr. Theron Quist, chair of the Department of Sociology and assistant director of the Criminal Justice program, is not convinced that shrinking majors would be an effective way to cut costs. Noting that his department has already reviewed and cut requirements in recent years, he said he and some other faculty members are concerned that artificially reducing major size would harm students.

“We’re concerned that we might be sending students out to do a career less prepared then we would like to see them,” said Quist. “And so, depending on what’s in a major, there might be elements missing that you would want if we reduce it too far.”

Moreover, Quist said he has not seen any modeling that would show that this effort would cut costs. Without definitive evidence that it would help the bottom line, he thinks it is unwise to make cuts to curricula for the sake of budget.

“So we don’t know that it would save money, but we know that our students would be maybe a little bit less prepared,” said Quist.

Quist said BW “would be better off directly approaching the issue” of offering too many sections by looking at low-enrolled programs and courses and trying to plan those sections more efficiently. He agrees with Stahl that it is important for BW to continue offer lower-enrolled programs, but he thinks “better program planning,” rather than shrinking major sizes across campus, would be a more effective way to cut costs.

Though smaller program sizes would theoretically allow students to add more majors and minors, Stahl said that is not the goal. The other part of Stahl’s proposal is to limit the number of majors and minors a student can earn and impose a timeline in which credentials can be declared.

While this would be a change at BW, Stahl said it is “common” across higher education for institutions to limit the number of credentials a student can earn. He said that students in most degrees should be limited to “a major and a minor, two majors, or a major and two minors, and no more credentials than that.” He also said that students should be required to sign their first major by their sophomore Spring semester registration and that students should not be able to add a major or a minor after they register for their senior Fall semester.

Stahl hopes that these restrictions not only help the budget but also encourage students to better plan their semesters at BW.

“I do hope that we have fewer students going up to 18 or more hours… [and] that students complete the courses they take,” said Stahl.

Dr. Denise Kohn, chair of the Department of English, said that she can see the value in limiting the number of credentials students can obtain. She said she has “seen too many students running after too many majors and minors” and thinks that it is good to encourage students to think about the number of credentials they are earning. Noting that a student does not have to major or minor in a subject to learn about it, Kohn said that “collecting majors or collecting minors doesn’t improve people’s job prospects.”

Kohn said she thinks the provost’s proposals could help encourage students to get a broad experience at BW, including taking courses outside of their areas of study and taking advantage of what BW has to offer outside of the classroom.

“Your experience at BW is more than your diploma,” she said.

For his part, Quist said he thinks the provost’s proposals are too restrictive. He thinks that students “should be able to change their mind” and change or declare majors in their senior year, even if it means they won’t graduate in four years.

Similarly, Quist also sees limiting credentials as an issue of student choice. He said he thinks it would be unfair to deny a student an additional credential if they fulfilled the requirements for it.

Though he can see the value in the provost’s proposals as means to encourage students to get a well-rounded liberal arts education at BW, Quist said he does not think that any of them — reducing majors or restricting credentials — will help the school’s budget woes.

“Overall, I think that student choice is more important, but encouraging students to get a broad experience is part of what we do here at BW, so I’m more sympathetic to that argument than I am to the fiscal one,” said Quist.

In the end, Stahl said that the decision to reduce major sizes is up to the faculty. He is hoping that they can find places to cut costs so that he can avoid having to consider cutting programs or full-time faculty members. The conversation has to be “quick” for academia, he said. The faculty were given until February to review their programs.

“I know in the end decisions will have to be made and that’s what I will have to do, but I want them to be informed decisions with full discussion,” said Stahl. “And I really do think there are ways forward that allow us to keep the full breadth of our programs, and I think that’s a strength.”

Though some faculty and administration differ in their ideas for solving the school’s financial issues, Quist said that they “have a shared goal” to find a solution that has the students’ best interests in mind.

“While we might not see the possible solutions the same way, I think both groups really are dedicated to trying to make BW more efficient and more effective in educating students,” said Quist. “I do feel like there is a unity of purpose, but we’re still trying to figure out the best way to get there.”