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Cali Owings, Published November 27 2013

MSUM officials respond to scathing critique of cuts

MOORHEAD – Minnesota State University Moorhead officials are fighting what they say are misconceptions about their plan to alleviate a $5 million school deficit by looking at cuts in more than half of their departments.

Last week the school published a list of its 31 departments ranked by their potential for reductions based on student enrollment and cost to educate. A few show potential for increased efficiency. Others show a need to restructure or reduce the number of adjunct and part-time instructors. And 18 could face more severe cost-saving measures such as layoffs of tenured and tenure-track faculty or program closures.

The school asked its departments to respond to the reduction prioritization with their own plans to increase efficiency, enroll more students and provide qualitative reasons why their program should not be cut.

Now, MSUM officials are coming under fire for plans to “possibly obliterate nearly half of their departments.”

In an article gaining national attention and shared in many academic circles, Rebecca Schuman, a Slate columnist and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, writes that MSUM went “straight for the academic jugular” instead of looking elsewhere for budget cuts, such as in administrative salaries and athletics.

MSUM officials say the column gives the wrong impression of the deficit-reduction measures at the school.

“People think, ‘Oh, you’re not going to have an English major,’ and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said MSUM President Edna Szymanski. “What we’re looking at is changing how we offer some of our programs.”

Some areas will be restructured or merged with others, but Szymanski said just a few “small programs that have very few students” may be closed.

Szymanski said their decision to reduce the number of faculty and potentially close small programs makes sense given the 11 percent enrollment decline that prompted the budget deficit.

“Enrollment has declined. It pretty much makes sense that if you have fewer students, you need fewer faculty,” she said.

Even with planned reductions, MSUM hopes to keep its faculty-to-student ratio the lowest among its state college peers at 16:1. It’s currently 15:1.

While the school is looking to trim several academic areas, administrators are quick to point out they’ve recently added programs to match student interest, such as a new project management major, a media arts minor and more course offerings in Geographic Information Systems Technology and mobile app development.

“Our resources are constrained, and we can’t add programs strategically to address student needs if we don’t also ask ourselves what we could stop doing and what we could do less of,” said Provost Anne Blackhurst.

While they’ll have to make some tough choices, Blackhurst said the responses she’s received from the different departments are “innovative” and faculty members have the interests of students at heart.

“Not every university can do everything,” she said. “We have to accept that if we try to do too much, we’re probably compromising the long-term viability of the university.”

The administration will share its plan for further reductions based on feedback from the departments at a meeting with faculty at 9 a.m. Dec. 5 in the Comstock Memorial Union ballroom.

Forum higher ed reporter Cali Owings can be reached at (701) 241-5599