More than 100 members of Mount Union’s faculty and staff were involved in the curriculum changes.

University of Mount Union restructures curriculum, hoping to cut costs and improve retention

The University of Mount Union is revamping its curriculum.

Officials announced earlier this month that it would sunset seven majors, seven minors, and a concentration. The university will add schools in education and business. Several departments in individual colleges will be reorganized as well.

The Alliance campus saw a reported 4% drop in full-time enrollment last fall, bringing the number down to about 1,900. But university officials said this revamp is coming from a position of strength.

No full-time educators at Mount Union are losing their jobs. The estimated savings of about $309,000 in the first year will come, in part, from efforts to streamline. This includes adjusting the amount of adjuncts and redistributing how faculty are staffed to teach courses.

Officials hope having faculty teach more first-year students in introductory classes can help with retention rates. They also are making tweaks so the curriculum offers clearer pathways for transfer students.

“There was no joy in doing this work over the past year,” said Jeffrey Breese, Mount Union’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “But it was something that needed to be done. We were very transparent.”

More than 100 faculty and staff were involved in the process known as an academic program analysis. Officials said they analyzed data and weighed many factors in their decisions, including market data and course demands.

A concentration in astronomy will be discontinued. New students will not be able to major in financial mathematics, geology and health, though no discipline will be totally wiped from the university’s offerings as a whole.

Some of the changes include shifting a few majors to minors, as is the case for communication studies, philosophy, religious studies and writing. Others will get folded into general education offerings.

It’s not the first revamp the campus has taken on in recent years. There was a restructuring of its colleges in 2019. Plus, Breese said programs have come and gone over the university’s 175-year history. There are now more programs in engineering and nursing. A data science minor will launch this fall.

“We have been pretty good at responding to what society needs, what students are interested in,” he said.

He debriefed students about the changes earlier this spring. They asked what would happen to those currently enrolled in a program set to be eliminated. The university is creating “teach out” programs for them.

But overall, the majority of current students didn’t seem overly concerned, said former student senate president Michelle Kissane.

“That was because there really weren’t that many students in there in the first place,” she said.

Kissane is right. Breese said some of the eliminated majors and minors didn’t have any participating students, but those related courses still had to be offered and could be filled with other non-major students.

Mount Union plans to continue using annual program analyses to examine its programs’ strengths and weaknesses. That includes a campuswide focus to assess the operational effectiveness of other departments.

‘Fair governance’

When it comes to potential course revamps, though, faculty senate chair Bruce Pietz said looking critically at each offering will be a culture change. To be blunt, he said, they haven’t always been efficient on this front in the past. But program reviews require them to be frank.

“It’s not to sunset programs. That’s not the initiative,” he said. “It’s ‘how can we make our programs better?’ “

The faculty senate was in agreement with 15 of the recommended 18 program modifications. Those were what the board of trustees approved. The other three programs will be put on an action plan by the end of the year.

There’s always anxiety when this type of process rolls out, Pietz said. But he thinks it’s been handled as well as possible. That’s not always the case at other campuses.

“With this being truly faculty led in collaboration with the deans and the provost, to me, that epitomizes fair governance where there’s collaboration on all sides to make what we have the best possible curriculum for our students,” he said.

Other colleges are leaning into a continual review of programs, too. A spokeswoman from Baldwin Wallace University, one of Mount Union’s peers in the Ohio Athletic Conference, told Crain’s that officials there review offerings on an ongoing basis. She said there are no pandemic or budget-driven programmatic changes under consideration.

A year-long analysis at Ohio Wesleyan University resulted in the elimination of 18 majors and consolidation of some departments in late 2020. The Columbus Dispatch reported one current faculty member was expected to be let go, though others were going to retire early. The cuts were estimated to save about $4 million.

For many institutions in Ohio and nationwide, the pandemic accelerated challenges colleges may have already been facing. Institutions were doing some soul searching before the past year, according to Sabrina Manville, the co-founder of college advising company Edmit.

There’s also been a shift when it comes to the mindsets of students and families as they look at options. They’re interested in programs’ return on investments. This means institutions have to consider some big questions.

“Are they meeting the demands of what students are looking for?” she said. “Are they going to position students for great outcomes after graduation? Are they teaching students the skills and content that they need to succeed in the world long term?”

It’s leading a lot of colleges and universities, she said, to tackle this work more proactively.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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