The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) requires that state universities report annually on what used to be called “low productivity programs” in compliance with the Illinois Public Act 097-0610. They then use this information to determine if the contribution of each program is “educationally and economically justified.” The IBHE has no regulatory authority over universities to tell them what programs to offer or eliminate, but the IBHE does make budget recommendations. So university administrators want to appease them.
You might be wondering what constitutes a “low producing” program in Illinois. Here are the IBHE standards (from page 8 of the October 2015 report):
Associate’s Degrees: 12 graduates
Bachelor’s Degrees: 6 graduates (25 enrolled majors)
Master’s Degrees: 5 graduates (10 enrolled majors)
Doctoral Degrees: 1 graduates (5 enrolled majors)
So if a program doesn’t have these averages for enrolled students and graduates over a rolling five-year period, it is considered low producing. When that happens, the IBHE recommends the following actions:
(1) Sunset status – A teach-out period is established and no new or transfer students admitted;
(3) Redesign – Further redesign and program changes will be applied to remediate low performance;
(4) Justification/No Further Action – There is no further action necessary due to the justification; and
(5) Priority Review – The program is placed under priority program review to best determine the appropriate status over the next academic year.
Remember, however, that the IBHE has no authority over university programs, and schools must simply submit an annual report. Some universities like University of Illinois make the required reports, but develop internal evaluations standards for their programs. Philosophers need to develop these kind of standards for philosophy programs.
WIU’s Philosophy program is on the list of “low producing” programs (page 220 of the report). We find ourselves in this unenviable position because philosophy is largely a discovery major, and it’s hard for students to discover philosophy when the program doesn’t have enough faculty members teaching classes. The number of philosophy teaching faculty at WIU is roughly half the average of the other Illinois philosophy program’s faculty, and as a small program, it is sensitive to faculty fluctuations due to sabbaticals, administrative changes, immigration, and in our case a tragic death. When philosophy course offerings are harmed by these factors, you might think it would play a role in the narrative to justify a program to the IBHE in a priority review. You’d be right, but there are other factors at play.
In one instance when we requested to replace a faculty member who left our department because of immigration issues, we were turned down even when we demonstrated “program need” and showed the four classes the faculty member taught each semester filled to capacity. Instead, our former provost told us that since the department of history had lower student enrollment in their general education classes, students who would have taken philosophy could now take history to satisfy their general education requirements. Our dean (a philosopher, by the way) accepted the argument. So as a result the philosophy program has fewer faculty, fewer course offerings, fewer majors, and fewer graduates making it a “low productivity” program.
You may know that Illinois is now in a full-blown budget crisis—nine months and counting without a state budget. On 2/18/2016, the IBHE released to state universities a new metric for: “Illinois Public Universities’ Academic Program Efficiency and Effectiveness Report.” (The file is in my public dropbox folder since it isn’t on the IBHE website yet.) Here are the new numbers for the new three-year rolling averages to determine “program efficiency and effectiveness.”
Associate’s: 12 graduates and (25 enrolled majors)
Bachelor’s: 9 graduates (up from 6) and (40 enrolled majors—up from 25)
Master’s: 5 graduates and (10 enrolled majors)
Doctoral: 2 graduates and (10 enrolled major)
All of this effectiveness and efficiency talk is driven by the goal of having 60 x 2025. That’s 60% of Illinois adults (25-64) having a degree or certificate by 2025. Here is a quote from the IBHE’s FY 2017 Budget recommendation:
“At each meeting, the state’s commitment to the goal that Illinois would have 60 percent of adults (25-64 years of age) with a college degree or credential by the year 2025 was reinforced as well as the reasons for that goal. This goal is the North Star that guides all of our budgetary and strategic decisions.” (page 10)
So Illinois politicians want state universities to provide the most degrees and credentials to the most people in the most efficient way possible. Redundant and inefficient programs across the state must be eliminated. This might mean that there is only room for one philosophy program in the state at say, Illinois State, and one Law Enforcement Program at perhaps WIU, and one Engineering program at say, UIUC. This seems to be part of the goal in Illinois: eliminate redundant and inefficient programs (however these are defined).
So philosophers might object to the methodology, right?
Why do government officials think that a single factor like graduates per year or number of enrolled students per year is the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of a degree program? Imagine a philosophy program that graduates 5 students a year with four faculty members. Now imagine a history program that graduates 6 students a year with 15 faculty members? Is history safe from IBHE review while philosophy is at risk of being identified as “inefficient” and as a result eliminated? Thanks to this overly simplistic bean counting, the answer is “yes.” Program evaluation requires vision and an understanding of a program’s function within a university, not circling a single criterion like degrees earned.
The problem arises when administrators and lawmakers think a university can be run like a business; to wit if all the philosophy programs don’t produce enough majors, then close them all except the one that does. Access to education isn’t a consideration in determining program effectiveness and efficiency, and no one is geographically constrained.
Some Real World Consequences of this “Low Productivity Analysis”
So how might this play out on a campus? I’ll tell you how it’s playing out at my university.
Philosophy is one of 13 programs that didn’t satisfy the “old” program efficiency metrics for the IBHE. The administration justified four of the programs—physics was one. So no further action was necessary for those four. Music gave up its B.A. in music and combined it with its B.F.A. So that left eight programs to consider. They are:
African American Studies
Each program was required to do a priority review and submit it to the administration. We did that and justified our program in a number of ways including offering a recruitment plan to increase our number of majors. While our recruitment efforts have been successful over the last year, we went from numbers in the low teens to 26 majors in the fall and 24 currently (4 double majors, so 20 in the eyes of the admin), it hasn’t been successful in earning us a program justification. So our program’s fate hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the budget situation gets worse in Illinois.
On December 8th of last year, the administration announced they were going to lay off 50 faculty members. Then they asked me as chair of the Faculty Senate to hold an election for an “Academic Program Elimination Review” (APER) Committee. Our employee union has language in our contract for such a committee. You can read the contract here. The relevant section is Article 26 (page 72).
It reads: “26.1. When the University is considering eliminating academic programs that would result in the layoff of an employee, it will constitute an Academic Program Elimination Review (APER) Committee…”
So here we are, waiting for an advisory committee of five people, one from each college and the library, to make a recommendation to the provost on what to do with these eight “low productivity” programs. The formation of APER committee indicates that faculty may be laid off with program eliminations, which is likely given the current and future budget situations in Illinois.
There is a lot more to our story than just this, but the fact is that in the fifth largest state in the U.S. the philosophy program at a state university is on the chopping block because of an overly simplistic evaluation metric. By all other metrics the philosophy program is an efficient and effective program, but others view it as a superfluous luxury and budget pressures make it and the other seven programs easy targets for elimination.
Philosophers must demonstrate the value of philosophy for a university education. I have written about assessment and non-academic administrators in the past. They’re here both on campus and in government, and they are making market-driven decisions about what a university education should be. Without a strong reply, lobbying effort, and PR campaign, we will see more of this kind of program evaluation in other states. These metrics spread like cancer.
I encourage other Illinois philosophers to share their experiences with the IBHE and the program efficiency reports. If you are in another state that is dealing with similar issues, please let us know. And if you have developed methods of evaluating the effectiveness of a philosophy program (or other humanities program) other than number of graduates, please share what you have. Philosophers should be sharing assessment and evaluation methods for our mutual benefit.
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