As the school year draws to a close, so did the feedback period for those wishing to respond to the proposals from the Focus For the Future process. While students are leaving campus, University of Idaho administrators and Interim Provost Katherine Aiken will continue to work through the summer on the Idaho State Board of Education mandated process, which could result in several program changes as an effort to make the university more efficient and save costs.
“My challenge with this whole process — which the state board mandated — was at the University of Idaho we did a similar program prioritization process based on the Dickenson model in 2008 so we already started that and we’ve experienced a considerable decrease in state funding over the last five or six years,” Aiken said. “We’re pretty lean to begin with and we don’t have a lot of places where people aren’t working 150 percent already so that’s my challenge with this whole process.”
Aiken and the Focus For the Future task force received backlash when the initial proposal — which showed potential cuts to several degrees as well as changes to non-academic programs — was released two weeks ago. While the initial proposal was cause for concern among students, faculty and staff, Aiken said she reminded many that it was just a proposal. She said releasing the recommendations in such a fashion allowed everyone to participate in the two-week feedback period, which ended Wednesday.
“I really mean it about it just being a proposal,” Aiken said. “Here were our challenges: did we want to have The Argonaut headline ‘On the Chopping Block’ during Vandal Friday periods? I don’t think so. Did we want to have this conversation going on when the State Board was meeting, setting our tuition levels? I don’t think so. So we really didn’t have a lot of opportunity for earlier discussion and it’s kind of a Catch-22.”
Aiken said they chose to address the entire university because it would have been too difficult to approach individual groups. She said the concern was that it would create angst and confusion in relation to each recommendation or department.
“If you piecemeal … talk about the proposals separately … then you’re creating angst piecemeal, or you’re creating angst with one set of proposals and best advice was that this was what we decided to do and it’s not perfect, but there’s no perfect way to talk about change at a place like the University of Idaho,” Aiken said. “I hope that we engage in civil and thoughtful conversation about these and I think everyone involved in creating these … considers them as proposals and that we really are just talking about them.”
Two groups on campus that expressed significant concern over the proposals were those in the Lionel Hampton School of Music, and students from the interdisciplinary Environmental Science and Water Resources program. The memo showed a potential recommendation to consolidate all music degrees into a single degree program, and to incorporate each interdisciplinary program into an existing college.
Members of the Environmental Science and Water Resources program staged a sit-in Tuesday in the Provost’s office and were granted a meeting with Aiken to discuss their concerns.
“Some of the consequences or possible ramifications of these weren’t all that obvious at first and that’s what you’re hoping people will tell you,” Aiken said.
As for the music department, Aiken said the proposal to consolidate the program would not affect the school’s accreditation or prominence on campus. She said none of the degrees would actually go away, but rather just look a little different.
“All these music degrees that we’re asking to look at is there a way to consolidate … this has created a lot of angst for them when none of these will actually go away, might they just look different is all the question that’s being asked here,” Aiken said. “I suspect — were I the Lionel Hampton School of Music — I would say ‘Here’s the reasons why pedagogically we don’t want to do that.'”
In terms of non-academic programs, or areas where the university could become more efficient, the UI pharmacy is already slated to close at the end of the semester. The rest of the proposals are still under consideration and will be more clear once Aiken and the task force have had time to review the feedback. She said the university is not entertaining thoughts of cuts or changes to the university’s administration as a way to cut costs.
“If you look at our peers we actually have way fewer administrators than any other institution our size,” Aiken said. “I don’t anticipate that happening. If you also look at the salaries of our administrators — which I know are a lot of money compared to some of the other people at the University of Idaho — but compared to our peers, nobody here is paid very highly.”
The next steps in the program prioritization process will be a review of the feedback, and a reconstruction of the proposals based on that feedback. UI President Chuck Staben will then review, and approve or disapprove the recommendations before they are sent to the state board in July to be reviewed at the state level prior to the August meeting.
“I believe what we eventually send the state board won’t be this list at all,” Aiken said. “This is just the starting point of conversation.”
Aiken said despite the board’s vague guidelines for the process, it has been the university administration’s goal to be responsive to their mandate, and complete the process to the best of their ability.
“We’re working hard to meet their expectations and we expect that we will have met their expectations,” Aiken said.
For those still wishing to provide feedback on the process, or learn more about Focus For the Future, Aiken and the task force have been providing updates at http://www.uidaho.edu/provost/focus-for-the-future.
“We recognize any kind of change is difficult in an organization like ours and I see it as a reflection of how committed people are to their work, to students and to their research and teaching,” Aiken said. “If people weren’t interested in this kind of thing then that would be more concerning than having people be engaged in the conversation. I really appreciate people’s commitment to what we do here.”
Kaitlyn Krasselt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org