Lori Varlotta is the president of Hiram College, in Ohio.
Academic change is hard and slow going. Couple that reality with dominant narratives that focus more on its challenges than its successes, and it's no surprise few educators are excited to initiate it. In today's environment, however, change is inevitable.
I offer this column to anyone who is expected to lead one of the most difficult changes in the academy — an academic redesign that illuminates which programs a college should grow, which it should downsize and which ones, if any, it should cut altogether.
In 2017, pressing needs to put Hiram College on firmer financial ground, bolster enrollment and align the curriculum with workforce needs prompted the academic dean and me to undertake such a redesign. Though Hiram had made cuts to nonacademic areas in prior years, our expenses still outpaced our revenues. Tried though we did to stave off cuts to academic affairs, we could no longer hold them harmless. A review of the academic budget showed a necessity for reducing and redistributing resources within the division.
Moreover, we needed to work with great haste; we only had seven months, from October 2017 to May 2018, to complete the entire process. Taking any longer would require postponing the additions of new majors — a risk to new student recruitment we could ill afford to take.
To begin the process, the dean, in collaboration with the faculty chair, formed an ad hoc committee of five faculty: the Strategic Academic Team (SAT). Members were carefully chosen from different corners of the campus. All were willing and able to put the needs of the "whole" ahead of the needs of individual departments, and all could comprehend relevant data, metrics and trends in short order. To guide their work, they referenced a process described by Robert Dickeson in his book, "Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services."
Knowing that the process required substantial buy-in from campus stakeholders, faculty were invited to participate at each major juncture. Out of the gate, faculty were asked to shape the criteria that would be used in the prioritization process. They were then tasked with working with departmental colleagues to assess how their own program measured up to those criteria. As part of their departmental assessment, faculty compiled a host of data, similar to what the Delaware Cost Study collects — a "discipline-level, comparative analysis of faculty teaching loads, direct instructional costs, and separately budgeted scholarly activity." The resulting assessments (complete with Delaware study data and budget information) were posted online for all faculty members to see.
Over several weeks, SAT reviewed departments' assessments and made preliminary recommendations to the dean about which programs should be enhanced, downsized, eliminated or merged. As SAT's work was underway, Hiram's shared governance committee worked on a parallel assignment. In the end, both groups sent me their respective recommendations, and it was validating to see they looked virtually the same. Having two faculty groups reach consensus on such critical issues was a win for everyone.
Their recommendations included the following: add four market-driven majors; reconfigure and merge standalone majors in music, art and theater; downsize five majors to minors; and eliminate one major. By far, the most difficult recommendation was the elimination of six faculty positions. The dean and I accepted these recommendations, and the board of trustees voted unanimously to approve them.
Along with changes to majors, the redesign also identified innovations we needed to consider. In particular, it called for reconfiguring our academic structure from a cluster of disconnected majors to five interdisciplinary schools. We made this major change during the summer of 2018, thanks to a faculty work group that mapped out what each school might look like.
- Determine if you will create an ad hoc group or use an existing committee, and be mindful of how faculty and staff are identified as participants. Our dean and faculty chair chose the five SAT members rather than having a more open selection process. This didn't sit well with all faculty. Foregrounding the rationale for selection and process is critical to preserving faculty investment.
- Engage the advisory group in researching models to shape your process, and invite other colleagues to weigh in on which model will work best. SAT insisted, insightfully, on amending the Dickeson model to ensure our prioritization process was not only about cutting but about innovating and adding, too. This proved essential in maintaining morale.
- Train stakeholders to make data-driven recommendations. I unrealistically expected faculty would be able to understand complex budget data they had not worked with before. Talented and well-intentioned faculty cannot make such recommendations without training.
- Empower other colleagues to assist. Our process was fueled by many. The dean of students kept them in the loop and gathered their input; the vice president of enrollment worked with admissions to monitor and mitigate any negative impact on recruitment; the vice president of development communicated routinely with alumni and made personal visits to myriad donors; and the public affairs staff disseminated information in timely and accurate ways.
- Formulate a public timeline and stick to it. This can lessen uncertainties for those impacted by the change. We created and adhered to such a timeline, but it required all of us to work more quickly than was comfortable.
- Be transparent and inclusive and demonstrate empathy even when the going gets tough. I held over 100 individual and small group meetings with faculty, staff and alumni. I invited some to coffee chats at the president's house, went on 5-mile hikes with others, and held informal Q&As on and off campus. Some meetings were at my initiative; others were at faculty or alumni request. I never said "No," to a single person who wanted to talk or meet. Even when things get tense or strained, an effective president is not only civil but empathic and compassionate, too.
By no means did Hiram do everything perfectly. We did, however, face our challenges head-on, orchestrating a change process that put the brakes on some programs and the accelerator on others. All of our decisions aimed to achieve a bipartite goal: Make change that will simultaneously benefit students and strengthen the institution.
We are starting to see the collective fruits of our labor, but we have more changes to make and more paths forward to pave.