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Sunday October 17th

UNC system’s efforts to eliminate unnecessary degree programs face challenges

UNC-system President Thomas Ross didn’t waste any time advocating for more efficient university operations after seeing the immediate effects of millions cut in state funding.

Ross announced in January — his first month in office — that Jim Woodward, former chancellor of UNC-Charlotte and N.C. State University, would spearhead a review to identify strategies for eliminating “unnecessary duplication” among the system’s 2,000 degree programs.

But nine months later, Woodward said there are inherent limitations to achieving cost savings by eliminating degree programs.

Since the formation of the state’s University system in 1971, growth in degree programs has been modest despite increased enrollment and higher demand for educational services, he said.

The system experienced a net gain of about 100 new programs in that 40-year span — approving 748 new programs and eliminating 639.

And in the last decade, 303 new programs were approved while 277 were discontinued.

Woodward said the new programs approved by the UNC-system Board of Governors each year often receive more attention than the programs that are discontinued.

“It flies in the face of the perception that we’re just adding new programs all the time,” he said.

“It just hasn’t happened.”

Administrators already conduct a rigorous program productivity review every two years, he said. The most recent review resulted in the elimination of 60 degree programs in February that didn’t meet requirements for retaining and graduating students.

Yet Woodward — who will present his full report on unnecessary duplication at the board’s meeting next week — said campuses shouldn’t be content with the rapid turnover in degree programs, a result of evolving student interests and state needs.

Universities must be diligent and take a cost-benefit approach to any new program they propose, he said.

“The trade-off always is — what does it cost in order to respond to that need, to provide that benefit?” he said. “No different from building roads.”

One recommendation in Woodward’s report will be tweaking and strengthening the internal degree program review processes of each campus. Systemwide guidelines for approving programs will prevent the accumulation of costly programs — such as research-oriented doctoral degrees, he said.

Jon Young, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Fayetteville State University, said FSU administrators plan to propose at least one new doctoral program in the next three to five years. But the program will offer an applied doctorate in a professional setting unique to the Fayetteville region served by the university, he said.

“(Woodward’s) report will confirm the need to continue some of the things we’ve already started,” he said.

“We’re not going to recommend any program for which we don’t have a good evidence of need.”

Implementing recommendations in Woodward’s report is unlikely to result in immediate cost savings, he said.

Administrators have also begun consolidating degrees and reallocating faculty positions after a state funding cut of 15.6 percent, or $414 million, this year.

“There’s been some sort of common notion that if we close a program today, then tomorrow we’ll have some extra money in the bank,” he said. “It takes several years — usually at least two to three — to begin to see the cost savings from closing programs.”

Although it might take some time for universities to experience the tangible benefits from his review, UNC-system administrators are confident that Woodward is still the best man for the job, said Jeff Davies, chief of staff for Ross, in an email.

“We chose him because we simply wanted the best person to conduct this review,” he said.

Woodward said he made it clear to Ross that he would not accept any compensation to complete the review. Hiring an outside consulting firm would also have been costly for the UNC system, he said.

“(This) is sort of my way of contributing to the University at a time when they’re facing financial difficulties,” he said.

James Samels, president of The Education Alliance, a global higher education consulting firm based in Massachusetts, said his firm has conducted several degree program reviews for universities to curtail programs that have outlived their need.

The firm might work with clients for as long as a year depending on the depth of the review, but Samels said even universities strapped for funding find that employing a consultant is the smallest expense.

“The far greater direct cost expense is implementing the academic program reviews,” he said.

Woodward said he hopes the recommendations in his report will provide cost-effective solutions for universities in the coming years.

“If you do a cost-benefit analysis, I hope — even at zero cost — it turns out to be positive,” he said.

Contact the State & National Editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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