URBANA — An "early warning system" that could trigger academic programs to undergo scrutiny if they fall below certain metrics is being considered for all three campuses of the University of Illinois.
In an environment of finite resources and a resistance by UI officials to dramatically increase tuition in the future, administrators and faculty leaders have begun planning a comprehensive review of academic units and programs, from animal sciences to urban planning.
"These days it's even more essential for us to be sure our operations, including academic operations, are efficient and meet the needs of the students and the state," said UI Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre.
In a meeting earlier this fall with faculty leaders from Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield, UI President Bob Easter told them he is held accountable by trustees and the state for the appropriate use of resources and it's imperative that chancellors, deans and other administrators ask the question: Is the university using the resources given to them in the best way it can? He's asked Pierre to oversee the academic review process. A separate review of administrative functions also is under way for university administration.
Discussions so far have centered on the rationale for academic reviews and "how to sustain excellence" at the University of Illinois, Pierre said.
Those involved are taking a look at what kind of reviews each campus conducts already, such as departmental and college reviews as well as those required by accreditation bodies and the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and what possible metrics could be used to evaluate programs.
The process will not be designed to ferret out programs that should be closed, said Richard Wheeler, the former interim provost of the Urbana campus who is helping Pierre on the assessment.
However, program and department heads should be prepared to show what their purpose is and how effective they are at meeting it, Wheeler said.
In light of declining state support and an uncertain federal funding outlook, across the country numerous colleges and universities like the UI are being forced to review their programs. Two years ago, the University at Albany, State University of New York, which also has faced a decline in state appropriations, effectively shut down several of its programs — classics, French, Italian, Russian and theater — when it decided to stop admitting students into those programs. The decision prompted protests, but since then other universities also have begun to undertake similar reviews and announce closures or mergers.
It's not uncommon for faculty and administrators to close programs on their own due to low enrollment or when a program morphs into another one, said Lon Kaufman, provost at UI Chicago. He began an academic program review process in recent years that heavily involves faculty on the Chicago campus.
Since the Albany closures, a growing sense of anxiety among faculty has developed across academia, said Joyce Tolliver, a Spanish, Italian and Portuguese professor on the Urbana campus.
"I believe this (anxiety) is a culture change in academia," she said.
Part of the anxiety is because faculty fear what they do will be subject to a cold review. However, as the UI begins its own review, Tolliver said, she was comfortable it would be conducted in a thoughtful way. This is not about university administration reaching down and putting units on the chopping block, she said.
In 2010, the Urbana campus took on "Stewarding Excellence," an initiative that involved faculty and staff serving on committees that reviewed several academic and administrative functions. That process resulted in various recommendations, restructurings and a few closures, such as the Institute of Aviation and the Center for Democracy in a Multiracial Society.
The new assessment being considered will be different from Stewarding Excellence, which involved committees being asked to answer specific questions about a unit's function, according to Wheeler, who was heavily involved in Stewarding Excellence.
He said he was not interested in setting up a "ponderous" review process. And Pierre said he didn't want to add another layer of review.
"Our goal is to alert campuses to problem areas," Pierre said.
Once campuses are alerted about such areas, it will be up to campus administrators, such as provosts, deans, department heads, to then tackle the problems.
"I think the university can be expected to put together a review that's stringent, careful and rigorous," Wheeler said.
In determining what the metrics will be, faculty and administrators will ask questions such as: How many students are there? How long does it take to graduate? How powerful is the research agenda emerging from these different departments? What are the activities of the faculty? How well is faculty renewal and recruitment going? How costly is it to run the department?
Data can tell a story, "but they're not the story," said UI Chicago's Kaufman. "Sometimes they're revealing and other times not so much."
Choosing those metrics is expected to be a challenge. Not all programs can be assessed in the same way, officials said.
The reports will help the campuses understand how effectively the programs are run and how effective they are in meeting the university's core missions of teaching, research and service, Wheeler said.
The metrics, Pierre was quick to point out, will not make any decision.
Anomalies are expected. And it will be up to the campuses — deans, department heads, faculty and others — to explore the reasons behind why the anomalies occurred, Pierre said.
He stressed that discussions are preliminary and "nothing has been set in stone yet."
In the coming months, administrators and faculty leaders from all three campuses will determine what metrics or criteria should be used to evaluate programs. It's possible a list of these metrics will be chosen around the spring and a "dry run" of applying the metrics to some departments will occur in late-spring.