Direction Package data needs clarification

Sokvonny Chhouk | The Free Press

Posted on March 10, 2014 in News
By Sidney Dritz

The Feb. 28 presentation of the Direction Package Advisory Board explored ways to think about the future of the university in an abstract sense, but as the president’s presentation of recommendations for the university’s next step grows nearer, the question of ‘what’s going to get cut?’ is looming.

Early commentary on the Direction Package after the initial roll-out in October included criticism about a lack of specifics, especially in terms of cuts. The advisory board’s recommendations included more specific and numerical evaluations of different academic departments, as well as other aspects of the university, but ultimately, the decisions are going to be made not by the advisory board but by University President Kalikow, with the advice of the President’s Council. “It still remains uncertain how this work is going to influence the final result,” said electrical engineering Professor Carlos Lück, a member of the Academic Review Committee.

“At the end of the day, we do expect that some people will be laid off,” Lück said.

The advisory board’s final presentation included a graph comprised of data gathered by the Academic Review Committee. The graph delineated between revenue producing degree departments, the departments that were breaking even and those that had lost money in the 2013 calendar year, as well as whether enrollment had increased or declined and to what degree.

The committee cautioned that the numbers in the graph did not comprise a complete picture of the financial health of the university’s academic programs. “There is no historical record of having broken down the information in this way before, so we had to break new ground,” Lück told the Free Press later.

While the mitigating factors concerning the completeness of the data are important, Lück said, the specific circumstances surrounding each program on the graph are equally significant. “Ultimately, every bubble on this graph has a story to tell.”

University President Kalikow responded to a similar comment at the presentation by reminding the board of the extremely limited timeline laid out for her recommendations based on the advisory board’s work, which is the two weeks between the Feb. 28 presentation and her own presentation of recommendations on March 15 to the Faculty Senate.

One of the most significant limitations of the data gathered by the Academic Review Committee, Lück said, was the lack of information included on outside funding, like grants and contracts, which have a significant impact on graduate programs. One program this affects is the Muskie School of Public Service, which falls in the revenue-negative quadrant of the graph, but which, Lück noted, receives significant funding through contracts for research.

Other factors to keep in mind, Lück said, include the dual importance and cost of external accreditation and the importance of different programs in maintaining the mission of the university.

As Lück noted, maintaining external accreditation can be included in the financial cost to a program, though the benefits of accreditation are tangible, if not easily quantifiable, as is partially illustrated by the net growth of students enrolled in the linguistics major in the 2012 and 2013 years.

“The growth trend in our department goes back several years,” said linguistics professor and department chair Wayne Cowart.

Cowart attributed the departmental growth, despite an on-going university-wide trend of declining enrollment, to several different factors. One factor, he said, was that the linguistics department’s American Sign Language interpreter training program gained national accreditation two years ago. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in the program from out of state,” Cowart said.

Out-of-state tuition, according to the data limitations accompanying the Academic Review Committee’s graph, is also not factored into the revenue presented on the graph, which is based on an average of $280 per credit. In fact, 56 percent of applicants to the linguistics program for the 2014 year are from out of state, from as far across the country as California.

Another factor that Cowart says has contributed to the linguistics department’s success in recent years is the college reorganization that divided the former College of Arts and Sciences into the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Science, Technology and Health.

“We look at linguistics as a scientific discipline,” Cowart explained. He said that it is easier to explain to other scientific disciplines the need for up-to-date computers, programs and other pieces of the current infrastructure a scientific discipline requires.

The College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is exploring further reorganization at a departmental level, a process which includes the reevaluation of where the major programs from the former Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures fit best with other programs. When discussing the former organization with the Free Press in November, classics Professor Jeanine Uzzi explained that the dissolution of the MCLL made sense for her program, since the study of the classics, though it includes a language component, in many instances has as much in common with other programs, like history or literature, as it does with modern language majors like French or Spanish.

The uncertainty of the former MCLL’s departmental status, however, has not stopped the “foreign languages” bubble on the Academic Review graph from making it into the revenue-positive section, despite a significant decline in enrollment.

Philosophy, on the other hand, straddles the very edge of the graph section between breaking even and losing money. When describing her department, philosophy professor and department chair of three years Julien Murphy focused on the passionate activity of the 76 majors and 27 minors in the philosophy department, rather than the significant decline in enrollment.

“We have the most active student organization in our college,” Murphy said, referring to the philosophy symposium, which meets once a week for philosophical discussions. Murphy also stressed the numerous interdisciplinary classes and classes taught by philosophy faculty for other programs, like EYE, the honors program and women and gender studies.

Lück’s final note for viewers of the financial breakdown of the Academic Review graph is to keep in mind that the graph doesn’t take into account the importance of certain programs in terms of their centrality to the mission of the university.

What the mission of the university is, exactly, has been a source of contention since the initial roll-out of the first Direction Package presentation in late October. After the formation of the advisory board in November, defining the university’s mission was one of the three main goals each assigned to a different working group within the board.

Lück referred to the vision committee’s section of the advisory board presentation on Feb. 28 in discussing what a program’s centrality to the university’s mission might be.

“The [university’s] mission has been defined as ‘a comprehensive metropolitan university in the state of Maine,’” Lück said. As such, the school has a commitment to serve the community, which includes offering a broad range of degree programs that pave the way to a broad range of careers. “Those values will affect decisions about programs going forward,” Lück said.

With the work of the advisory board completed and presented, the next step is President Kalikow’s presentation of her own recommendations, based on the presentation of ideas from the board and consultation from the President’s Council.

The Faculty Senate will have time to respond to the president’s recommendations before they are put into practice. “I’m going to give you my pick, and you’re going to give me your advice,” Kalikow said to the Faculty Senate last Friday. However, Kalikow said, she hoped the faculty’s feedback could all be presented to her by May’s senate meeting in order to move on to implementation of the proposed changes by the year’s end.