Higher Education

Restructuring process takes its toll

Calvin College reviews viability of six humanities programs.

October 9, 2015
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Calvin restructuring
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Calvin College is considering the elimination of several academic programs as part of its restructuring process.

The Grand Rapids college provided an update Sept. 25 regarding its academic prioritization process within its overall strategic plan in a letter to students indicating the Academic Prioritization Task Force recommended the elimination of six academic programs.

The Academic Prioritization Task Force, which included nine tenured faculty members representing different disciplines, recommended to Provost Cheryl Brandsen the elimination of six programs: architecture (minor), and art history, German, Greek, Latin and theater majors.

Upon evaluating qualitative and quantitative data, interviewing program representatives and considering the strategic vision of Calvin, Brandsen indicated the task force recommended the programs for elimination due to low student demand.

“I want to be very clear about two things: none of the programs recommended for elimination are being recommended because of quality concerns, and none of these programs are being eliminated because we think they are unimportant,” Brandsen said in the letter. “With deep regret, I have recommended that these programs be eliminated.”

When reviewing the programs, the task force looked at metrics, such as: graduates by program, student-to-faculty ratio by department, current majors in the programs, and interest by first-year and transfer students. During the 2014-2015 academic years, only one student graduated with a Latin major, two graduated with an art history major, and three students completed the German and theater programs, according to the Academic Division Prioritization update.

Despite the potential programming cut, a number of related courses would be retained, including the art history minor, German minor, classical studies major, Latin minor, theater minor, and the Calvin Theatre Company.

Michael Le Roy, Calvin president, said while there are a number of students on campus who love the programs, most of the areas have had fewer graduates each year than there is faculty.

“To sustain that really would mean to raise tuition and add cost to student education at a time we don’t think the marketplace would be accepting,” said Le Roy. “What we have felt strongly about is these disciplinary emphases still need to be a part of our curriculum. I think what we will be doing is getting more focused and efficient in those areas; instead of offering 10 courses in a given area, maybe reduce it to five or six.”

Students who are currently enrolled in the programs recommended to be eliminated would have the opportunity to complete their degree. Brandsen indicated Calvin is “committed to teaching these programs to completion for current students” and has “an accreditation obligation to do so.”

The task force’s recommendations were shared with faculty, staff and governing committees at Calvin. Depending on final board of trustee approval during its October meeting, the programs would phase out over the next four years subject to current student enrollment.

Brandsen also indicated although the recommendations for elimination fall on programs in the humanities, languages and arts, Calvin remains committed to the areas of study.

“We find ourselves currently in a hard spot for needing to better align college-wide resources with demand,” said Brandsen. “While necessary cuts are being implemented, the college is also committed to restructuring in a way that will enable sustainable growth in the humanities and the arts. In fact, Calvin will not thrive if the only outcome of prioritization is offsetting debt.”

In a May 2015 letter update, Le Roy indicated the overall prioritization process was recommended by the college’s Planning and Priorities committee in December 2013, approved by the board of trustees, and ultimately integrated into the overall Calvin 2019: Strengthen, Support, Secure strategic plan to move the college into a sustainable financial footing by the fall 2017.

“As our deans and the provost revisited the assumptions of the prioritization plan using 2014-2015 data, they concluded that a more active strategy was needed to align resources with needs and strategic goals,” indicated Le Roy in reference to the academic portion of the plan.

While Calvin’s operational restructuring and evaluation of programs is an effort the college has been working on since 2012 and 2013, Le Roy said there are several trends in the broader higher education landscape that impact enrollment.

“I think all higher education is challenged on the cost side and the price side. The price side is challenging because family incomes for the middle class have been so flat or even negative over time, so disposable income to support higher education is a constraint,” said Le Roy. “The second dynamic is the college-bound high school student population is declining.”

Another trend contributing to the lower enrollment in some of the liberal arts programs is the shift from humanities to professional programs that students believe will correlate to employment, according to Le Roy.

“I think students today are more focused on the major, or collecting a number of majors, that will link directly to their idea of what job is out in the marketplace,” said Le Roy.

While the college views the foundation of a liberal arts education as students learning how to speak, write, persuade and reason clearly and effectively, rather than a specific major, Le Roy said Calvin has seen a significant decline in enrollment in the programs being recommended for reduction.

“Most of the areas, we have had fewer graduates each year than we have faculty,” said Le Roy. “It makes it difficult to sustain. We also are transitioning to an approach where we regularly assess the viability of all our programs in terms of the student enrollment levels and the quality of student experience.”

As of 2012, when Le Roy assumed the leadership role at Calvin, the college’s long-term debt had reached roughly $116 million; as of May 2014 it had an operating deficit of nearly $4.5 million with a forecasted operating deficit of roughly $7.7 million by 2017.

To address growing financial concerns, the college is working toward five goals: raise at least $25 million by 2017 to pre-pay principal on the college’s long-term debt; sell non-core real estate assets by 2017; refinance remaining long-term debt in 2017; increase revenue through enrollment growth, new program growth, and differentiated tuition and fees from some higher-cost programs; and reduce annual operating expenses.

Calvin’s $25 million donor pledge campaign was completed by spring 2014 and secured roughly $28 million in support, according to Le Roy. The college also made an approximately $13 million principal payment in April 2015 using funds from the sale of the Weyhill Building and from debt-reducing gifts.

“We have done a couple of things that have brought that debt down to $89 million,” said Le Roy. “We hope to have our long-term debt below $80 million by 2017 and we feel that is a manageable range.”

The college also began working with a new vendor for its copy machines and is trying to reduce the amount of copying waste, which has resulted in roughly $120,000 in savings per year. It also has outsourced its campus store, which is expected to save the college up to $250,000 annually.

“This has been a very hard season. We feel that we are really well positioned for the realities in which higher education operates,” said Le Roy. “It has been kind of a painful effort to get to this point, but we feel very optimistic about our direction and the opportunities that we have to fulfill our mission for our students and for the wider world we seek to change.”

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