The state Board of Regents Wednesday said it has identified as low-performing and subject to termination more than 450 academic programs within the state’s university systems, and nearly half of the programs — 212 of the 459 — are in the University of Louisiana System of which UL Lafayette is a member. In fairness, the UL System is also the most populous of the four, having eight four-year universities under its umbrella.

This is the third year the board has tracked and identified academic programs for graduation rates, but this year the board upped the ante by using a stricter set of standards for determining what programs are low-completer. Heretofore, the board’s criteria were based, among other things, on tracking graduation rates over a five-year period; that has been reduced to three years. The board is also considering all programs without exclusion whereas in the past some core academic areas were not subject to review. Campuses will now be required to provide fiscal impact information for any program terminations or consolidations.

UL Lafayette, according to the Board of Regents, has 27 programs with low completer rates, par for the course within the UL System. However, UL President Dr. Joe Savoie says the Regents’ list doesn’t paint a true picture. View the full list of programs that may face the chopping block here.

“Seventeen are education degree programs,” Savoie says, listing among them such focused areas of study as vocal music education for secondary schools.

Dr. Carolyn Bruder, the university’s interim vice president for academic affairs, says that is par for the course statewide: “I would just guess looking at the list, probably 60 to 70 percent of them are education degrees,” she explains. “For instance, physics education for secondary schools is a degree program. Well, you don’t ever, anywhere, have a lot of physics education majors. So on everybody’s list that shows up.”

“Previously the board has not treated these as low completers because they’re so focused,” Savoie adds. “This time they caught a lot of that stuff. I think that will be fixed in some fashion by having broader areas of certification under which these would fall.”

Among the universities within the UL System, Louisiana Tech has the greatest number of programs exposed to elimination due to low completion rates — 46. Moreover, the university with the second-highest number within the system, UL Monroe with 33 programs in jeopardy, is located just 30 miles from LA Tech’s Ruston campus, increasing the likelihood that some of those universities’ programs will be consolidated.

The criteria by which an academic program is deemed to be low-performing are an average of eight graduates per year or a minimum of 24 within three years for undergraduate programs; an average of five graduates per year or a minimum of 15 within three years for master's/specialist programs; and an average of two graduates per year or a minimum of six within three years for doctoral programs.

Savoie characterizes the board’s criteria as arbitrary, pointing out that some subject areas have always had and will always have fewer students and consequently fewer graduates. Among the 27 facing elimination at UL is the master's degree in physics program.

“Physics is just not going to have the same production as a different degree,” he says. “But this one is larger than most master's of physics degrees anywhere in the country — larger than the national average for enrollment production. It’s one of our most prolific research areas and actually generates money — it brings in more than it costs to operate it.”

“We have to answer the question, how relevant are our programs when it comes to the workforce?” adds Regents board member Roland Toups. “We must look at this in a real solid hard-nosed basis. The goal is to sharpen the tools we use in evaluating our postsecondary institutions.”

While Savoie acknowledges that the board’s review of academic programs is “a legitimate process that needs to be done in this environment,” he questions the sentiment expressed by Toups and others that simplistically envisions a university education as a means of addressing the needs of the workforce. “There’s too much of that,” he says. “Universities are not glorified trade schools.”

Last fall The Independent learned that UL deans and department heads were developing worst-case scenarios for cuts of up to 25 percent within their colleges and programs. However, earlier this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he didn’t foresee universities having to cut more than 10 percent in the budget he will release this spring.

But Wednesday’s announcement no doubt sent a shudder through professors statewide who teach more arcane topics. One program not on the Regents’ list is UL Lafayette’s German language studies. Last fall the program’s coordinator, Dr. Caroline Huey, was called into a meeting with university administrators to discuss the program's future. No decision was made on the program; both sides agreed to meet this spring to talk about it more. There were four students majoring in German during the fall 2010 semester at UL, with about half a dozen minoring in the language; other students take German courses to satisfy foreign-language requirements for their majors. But Bruder says the program likely wasn’t on the Regents’ list because it is part of the larger Department of Modern Languages, and neither she nor Savoie anticipate any faculty reductions resulting from the Regents’ new hit list.

Savoie says he believes it will take a “state solution” for the high number of specialized education degrees appearing on the Regents’ list for all universities, and both he and Bruder say they’re ready to go to bat for the other programs flagged by the board.

 “The purpose of a university education is to give you a broad, general education — the ability to analyze and to think and to make informed decisions,” Savoie insists. “A university education will prepare you to be flexible and adaptable so you can take advantage of opportunities, not just be stuck with one career option. And we’ll make that case.”

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