By Walker Moskop
COLUMBIA — Missouri institutions have until Oct. 29 to send their reports on low-performing programs to the state Department of Higher Education.
A timeline released last week by the state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education set deadlines that would put recommendations in the governor’s hands by February.
The original deadline to submit reports to the Department of Higher Education was Oct. 21.
In a meeting with the MU Faculty Council on Thursday, Deputy Provost Ken Dean stressed the need for departments to be cooperative in the process.
The state is paying close attention to “whether we seem to be trying to make things better or whether we’re just trying to be defensive about everything we do,” Dean said.
He said administrators have met several times this week to review the preliminary responses deans and department heads submitted by Oct. 15.
“As you can imagine, most of them have made a case for continuing their programs,” Dean said in an interview after the meeting.
Some responses need more elaboration, he said. A few departments indicated they might be willing to merge programs in the future, he said, but none wanted to make any immediate changes.
After reports are submitted, the state will begin a process of analysis and consultation with university officials. The state’s findings will be submitted to the coordinating board on Feb. 10.
The coordinating board will give Gov. Jay Nixon its report on Feb. 11.
Dean suggested a grassroots approach would be better than top-down, mandated demands in shaping the future of low-producing programs.
Collaboration and consolidation might be ways to strengthen programs and mitigate any damage, he said. Combining resources or merging programs with other institutions are possibilities to consider.
“Let’s be honest about where we’re heading here,” he said. “There aren’t going to a lot more hires in some of these areas. If you’re going to find strength, it’s going to be often in partnering and working with someone else.”
Council member Steve Ball, an exercise physiology professor, wondered whether consolidation would be an effective cost-saving measure.
“How would consolidating programs with other institutions actually save the university money?” he asked.
“As a practical matter,” Dean replied, “many of these things don’t have any short-term savings … and maybe they don’t even have long-term savings.”
He suggested the answer in the long run might lie in combining smaller programs to bolster them.
Another council member noted that a 2005 merger of four programs into the Division of Plant Sciences was ultimately successful but not easy.
It took at least a year to “write bylaws and figure out how to handle things,” agronomy professor Bill Wiebold said in an interview Friday.
Despite the difficulties, Wiebold said combining departments had a positive effect, but he added that some of his colleagues might not share his view. He said he believes educational programs, research and quality/cost relationship improved as a result of the merger.
“It broke down some barriers that existed in the past when we were four different departments,” he said.
He expressed doubt that similar, successful consolidations could happen in a matter of months, but he shared Dean’s view that faculty-driven solutions are necessary.
Other council members expressed concerns about the time frame, and one called it too short for “thoughtful deliberation.”
“We wish to be responsive and responsible, but we certainly need more time,” nuclear engineering professor Loyalka Sudarshan said.
During the past few years, MU has accumulated savings to help avoid previously anticipated cuts, Dean said. He said he was unsure what next year’s cuts would be but added, “It’s not looking as good as the past two years.”
He noted that several years ago, MU began requiring that proposed new programs have a business plan and a “neutral or positive revenue stream.”
Although he acknowledged it was a harsh perspective, he said the reality is that MU can no longer add programs just because they add to the breadth and quality of the university.
“We can’t continue to be all things to everyone,” Dean said.