How leaders can take a more humane approach to academic program reviews

Why timely and clear communications are key when leaders make challenging decisions
By: | August 24, 2021
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Erin Hennessy

Erin Hennessy

Every story I read about academic program reviews makes me think of the opening lines of Anna Karenina.

While, as Tolstoy wrote, all happy families are alike and unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way, each campus undergoing a program review seems to be unhappy in the same way.

Faculty feel blindsided, leadership feels like faculty are ignoring financial realities, and students feel enormous uncertainty about what happens to them and their eventual degree. The truth is no one is ever going to be happy about these types of reviews because they always end with excruciating choices.

But while we can’t expect happiness, we can and should expect of ourselves a humane approach to communicating, which means that we need to start long before we get to a program review.

‘No one should be blindsided’

Particularly in financially challenging times, there is an obligation and responsibility for presidents and their leadership teams to be as transparent as possible about the institution, its mission, its finances, and its prospects. Ideally, no one should be blindsided by a program review.

At the same time, it’s imperative to understand that there is no silver bullet of language that is going to make a program review more palatable to the people it will impact in a very real way. These processes are hard and, in most cases, there will be people who lose jobs. However, the alternative is institutional closure as a result of a financial death spiral caused by a reluctance to move toward a more relevant mix of programs and credentials.

Most often, when program reviews are announced, the faculty are rightly and understandably concerned about what this means for them, their colleagues or departments, and their students. Sometimes, faculty seek to engage students and alumni in their efforts to stave off changes.

However, “saving” programs is never as easy as it is made out to be in social media posts, letters to the editor or petitions. After all, there’s no magical bucket of money from which we can draw, so to save one department something else must be lost.

It’s understandable that faculty can feel like their department is being intentionally targeted for very personal reasons. But what typically brings leadership to consider eliminating a program is declining interest among students, or the cost of the program, or both of these things combined.

And while many dream of an alumna or alumnus riding in with a donation that will cover the funds needed to continue a targeted program, in actuality those donations rarely are enough to sustain the program long-term. Pinning the future of a department or program on the continued largesse of donors on a year-to-year basis isn’t just impractical, it’s irresponsible.

Beyond the internal community dynamics, program reviews pose a reputational challenge, with leaders and faculty engaged in a battle for the soul of the institution. Leaders are painted as cruel, heartless, uninterested in the life of the mind, focused solely on the bottom line, while faculty are painted as elitist, divorced from reality, out of date and lazy.

None of this is helpful to the institution, which, if it survives, will require continued collaboration between leadership and faculty. It’s also incredibly damaging to the public perception of higher education, underscoring that our industry doesn’t get it and isn’t interested in anything but taking students’ time and money for a degree that won’t serve them well in the real world.

Looking for a shared goal

As a communication consultant who is usually brought in after the review has been announced and the interested parties have shifted from colleagues to combatants, I see both sides of these arguments.

I understand that faculty were made promises about their ongoing role at the institution if they hit certain marks and milestones. I understand that presidents and leadership teams are working to find a way to make the institution sustainable for the long term and, in many cases, have exhausted all other options available to them.

And I understand that staff members, who are often the first constituency to be impacted by budget cuts, feel demoralized by the lengths to which the institution will go to cushion the academic side of the house. But among all three groups, there is a shared goal: extending the life of the institution to serve students.

Being part of the change necessary to achieve that goal won’t always be easy or pleasant and may not protect faculty from an end to their department or program or tenured position, but neither will the merger or acquisition or closure of the institution that is unwilling to change.

As we continue to come out of the pandemic, a return to normal will inevitably include a return to program prioritizations. While there is no language to make program reviews more pleasant, timely and clear communications are absolutely necessary as leaders make challenging decisions in the best interest of the students.

For institutions and their communities to survive, leaders need to prioritize transparency, honesty and openness as they chart a course for the future.

Erin Hennessy is vice president at TVP Communications, a national public relations agency focused on higher education.