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Higher Education’s Big Shake-Up Is Underway

College closures, academic program terminations and institutional mergers are nothing new on the higher education landscape. They’ve gone on for decades, particularly during tight financial times. But this year, during what looks like just the initial phases of the coronavirus pandemic, large-scale administrative restructuring in higher education is accelerating at a pace seldom, if ever, seen before.

No mistake about it: the Big Shake-Up is underway.

Campus Closures

Already during 2020, a number of respected colleges have shuttered their doors or are being acquired by other institutions as administrators come to the realization that their campuses cannot survive the economic trauma wrought by the pandemic. In Illinois, MacMurray College closed and Robert Morris University has been integrated into Roosevelt University. Concordia University-Portland has closed up shop, so have Holy Family College in Wisconsin, and Nebraska Christian College, a branch campus of the Hope International University. In Ohio, Urbana University, a branch campus of Franklin University, called in quits in April because of the coronavirus pandemic and declining enrollment.

Although one could claim that these closures involved mostly small colleges that had been on the enrollment and financial ropes for years, and therefore aren’t the best examples of schools knocked out by the pandemic, that view betrays a false optimism in light of the major universities and university systems now considering large-scale consolidations along with the faculty layoffs often preceding or accompanying them.

Institutional Consolidations

Last Wednesday, the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education approved the next step in a process that could result in California, Clarion and Edinboro universities merging into a single unit in Western Pennsylvania along with the combination of Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the state’s Northern Tier.

“We are seizing an opportunity to rise up together,” PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein told the board for the 14 state-owned universities. Trying to put the best face on it, Greenstein insisted that the mergers would allow the schools to maintain their own identities, save money, benefit students and develop opportunities for growth.

In addition to the six universities targeted for potential mergers, the other universities in the PASSHE system, created in 1982, include: Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.

The Board’s vote to move forward with additional study and planning for the possible mergers reflects years of pressure to find savings in the system. Over the past decade, overall enrollment at its 14 universities has declined from 119,513 to 93,708 this fall. So while the pandemic may have helped trigger the latest move, the gun has been loaded for some time.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “In Western Pennsylvania, California saw enrollment decline by 27%, Clarion dropped 39% and Edinboro decreased 50%. In the Northern Tier, enrollment declined by 16% at Bloomsburg, 42% at Lock Haven and 47% at Mansfield.”

Academic Programs On the Chopping Block

This week, in one of the biggest restructuring moves, the University of South Florida (USF) announced that it would be closing its College of Education and eliminating all undergraduate education programs. The university blamed financial problems in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic for the decision.

As public universities in Florida prepare plans for an 8.5% reduction in state funding for this fiscal year, USF’s share is about $36.7 million, with a second phase of reductions anticipated for next fiscal year. The school released a campus letter of explanation, which said in part:

Like many Institutions of Higher Education across the State and throughout the nation – USF faces significant budget challenges in the face of COVID-19 while we continue our progress as a consolidated preeminent research university. As part of our strategic budget renewal process, USF must reduce the College of Education’s annual budget allocation by $6.8 M (or 35%) over two years, a challenging task that demands a comprehensive assessment as we plan for the future of Education at USF.

To that end, we are strategically reimagining and reconfiguring Education at USF from a comprehensive College of Education to a more focused Graduate School of Education with an appropriate organizational affiliation with another college such as the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

USF is not alone. Majoring academic restructuring has also been proposed by administrators at Doane University in Nebraska and at Illinois Wesleyan University. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and College of Fine Arts are slated to be combined into a single college focused on the creative arts, humanities and design. A reduction of 43 academic programs is anticipated, along with a reduction in staff.

University President Dr. Michael Driscoll said “For the last year or two I have been very clear with the IUP community that we have a couple choices. We can make the well-informed strategic but very difficult decisions to determine our own future, our own destiny, or we can sit back and let someone else shape that destiny for us.”

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Up to now, the furloughs and layoffs that many colleges and universities have imposed have often been described as temporary cuts, stopgap measures that will be necessary only as long as campus operations are limited by the pandemic. More and more, that view is looking like false hope. As Robert Kelchen has recently argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education, higher education is reluctantly coming to the recognize the “growing signs that colleges will make permanent cuts to their entire work force.” And with those reductions will come more of the inevitable restructuring and retrenchment that so many in higher education have feared. Higher ed’s Big Shake-Up is here.

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