What’s in a number (or, trying to understand the minds of university administrators)

After seemingly retreating from obsessive micro-managing of student numbers, certain administrators at my university have recently returned to routinely flagging “low enrolling” sections term-by-term while now also pointing to numbers of majors when citing decisions about faculty lines and other forms of program support.

I, like most faculty I know, understand the need for sound financial management and also the value in periodically assessing faculty lines and the distribution of university resources. As part of that, I accept both that not all programs will be viewed equally by administrators, and that there may be a variety of bases for determining the value of programs. As faculty, you find ways to deal with administrative priorities in whatever way you can.

However, it is difficult to understand these kinds of judgments where the logic of administrative assessment and decision making cannot be followed or is not articulated to faculty. I can think of a few reasons why there might be an intense focus on “low enrollments” and “program size” on the part of administrators on my campus right now, but I don’t actually know which, if any, of these might be the correct answer to why the metrics that are being valorized are, in fact, being valorized.

To begin my guesses, the Oregon University System is being dissolved. The larger institutions, University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State, have already been freed to establish independent boards. For smaller campuses like mine future governance it still to be determined. Our president has submitted a proposal to the legislature for an independent board.

It is possible that the obsession with enrollment minutiae has to do with either demonstrating “strong management” to members of the legislature to bolster the case for independence or is more practically concerned with scraping up nickels and dimes from, particularly, reducing adjunct hires, but also from not renewing tenure track lines, in order to finance the prospective board.

Second, after growing from 4,889 in 2006 to 6,233 in 2010, enrollments at Western have essentially settled to around 6,100. It is possible that the concern with micro-enrollments is a reaction to this macro-level contraction and leveling off (my data is from the Fall enrollment reports to OUS). The idea being, I suppose, to rationalize course numbers to what appears to be the popping of an enrollment “bubble” since 2010.

Third, and similar to the first, there have been a number of personnel changes in upper-level administration in the last year, particularly on the academic side of the university. What may be happening here is an attempt to establish some kind of “hard” management style or administrative united front. We have a strong union and a tradition of faculty control over curriculum. Focusing in on term-by-term enrollments and number of majors could be a strategy to divide faculty in competition over students.

A fourth possibility is that the concerns here are not so much about the present, but are about laying groundwork for future hiring decisions, that is, if administrators are on the record now expressing concern about “low enrolling courses” and “small programs”, then later, when decisions are made about faculty lines and adjunct sections on the basis of these metrics, no one can claim ignorance regarding the criteria for allocating faculty resources.

To extend this speculation further, maybe the targeting of section enrollments and rumbling about numbers of majors are expressions of an un-articulated plan for re-shaping the university, one imagines around a few select professional, pre-professional, or simply “practical” programs with currently high enrollments, while gradually downsizing, by attrition, many of the traditional liberal arts and sciences to supporting roles, with no majors and only a few upper-division courses as deemed necessary for the full programs that do remain.

This last point seems the most likely, not just because it imparts a clear logic to the imperatives at work here, but also because it seems consistent with recent actions on hiring. However, as noted, nothing like this reasoning has been directly or clearly shared with faculty.

For me, and many of my faculty colleagues, one of the biggest sources of frustration in this process is not knowing why we have to engage in the exercise of cutting or defending all sub-twelve sections every term. Assuming that the goal, or, okay, let’s say, “outcome”, is one that faculty can at least sympathize with, I am sure that many, maybe most, would be willing to reassess our course schedules and make whatever practical adjustments we can to maximize enrollment each term.

But right now no one particularly understands why every section of every course is expected to meet the same enrollment threshold every term, regardless of program, purpose or enrollment history (I’ll just note here that there are sections of courses on the schedule that are routinely capped at less than twelve). There are, perhaps, vestigial OUS directives being responded to, but that hardly explains the current level of intensity over course enrollments (and I don’t think it explains the attention being paid to number of majors at all), expect, perhaps, as part of my first guess, where dutifully fulfilling system mandates, even as the system is being dismantled, will be looked at favorably in making the case for an independent board.

Of course, if I were in upper-level administration and I had a plan to change hiring practices to favor programs that met certain metrics for section enrollments and program size, or an even more radical plan for remaking the university around those numbers, I probably wouldn’t want to share that with faculty in a direct way either. That is, if the desired outcome is contraction of most of the academic programs at the university, I would not expect most faculty to embrace that outcome.

In an immediate political sense the unspoken rationale or rationales behind both the focus on section enrollments and numbers of majors is that, currently, for faculty to make even the most minor of curricular changes requires detailed explanations (“we must have a culture of evidence!”) and an assessment plan for determining if the stated purposes, excuse me, “outcomes”, are met.

Right now faculty have no idea what the administrative outcomes are, what goals are meant to be achieved, by imposing an enrollment threshold of twelve and insisting that majors be of a certain size, or how those outcomes are to be assessed (and, it should be noted, the exact number for size of major has not been articulated).

Without that information these imperatives seem arbitrary. It isn’t difficult to think of other ways of measuring departmental health or vitality or value – whatever term you like – besides section-by-section enrollments or number of majors. Why not total section enrollments? Why not student credit hours? Why not annual enrollments? At a small school like mine, why look at the departmental scale, why not Division or College? Why look at number of majors instead of student contact hours? Why employ the same measurements or standards for all departments when different departments serve different primary functions, e.g., there are departments that are primarily service departments and there are departments that primarily serve majors? Why is teaching majors more important than teaching in the core?p

My point isn’t that these would all be better measures than the ones being deployed. My point is that how you measure value or success should depend on your underlying purpose and not the other way around, that is, I don’t think what we do as faculty, or as a university community, should be driven by metrics that are selected prior to understanding what kind of a place we want the university to be. There is no prima facie or obvious value to section enrollments, or to twelve students, as opposed to any other number of students, or to numbers of majors. The fact that we don’t know what value is being ascribed to these measures is a far bigger problem for me right now than is the insistence that they be applied in the first place. It makes me wonder why these numbers are not being presented for discussion, but are simply being imposed.

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