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Opinion: The shades of gray in the University’s curricular review


A timetable of the University of Nevada, Reno’s curricular review process reveals attempts at following university rules as carefully as possible. Those rules, however, are vague enough that any steps toward budget reductions are subject to various levels of interpretation.

Even a surface examination of the budget cutting process shows it to be non-academic in nature. This was demonstrated in the responses by affected units, which had to rush to defend their existence after being subjected to curricular review by the University provost, and which soundly debunked many of the reasons for being placed under review.

The groundwork for curricular review was occurring prior to September of 2009 when the University was staring down the barrel of a state-created budget crisis in which there were guaranteed to be no easy answers. The University’s Institutional Strategic plan for 2009-2015, accepted by the faculty and ultimately by the Board of Regents, contains this background statement in its cover letter:

“The University has developed special emphases to reflect the important industries and social conditions of the State, e.g., adoption of the Land Grant University principles, development of the Mackay School of Mines, and growth in agriculture, medicine, health care, engineering, business, education, and journalism.”

The limited inclusion of agriculture in the strategic plan included a commitment to “serve the agricultural industries of Nevada with relevant, applied research of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.” The College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources is mentioned presciently — only once in the plan, and cast in the past tense.

The University bylaws related to curricular review indicate administrative attempts to cast the planning process and the curricular review as an enhancement to the University, even though curricular review is being used as a tool for budget reductions, and not necessarily its stated intent. Section 3.5.4 (b) of the bylaws states that “the decision to discontinue, deactivate, and reduce in size or reorganize a program or department of instruction shall be based upon educational considerations, i.e., long-range judgment that the educational mission of the university as a whole will be enhanced by such a change.”

In January, the administration requested individual colleges submit revised budgets cuts of 6%, 8% and 10%. These scenarios should have accounted for requisite cuts since the special session of the Legislature sent back to the Nevada System of Higher Education a 6.9% cut, which the system in turn horizontally doled out to its institutions. Yet, on March 1, the University Provost unleashed a unilaterally crafted proposal for specific cuts of programs and faculty, both teaching and administrative, an approach that was in stark contrast with the administration’s past efforts to reduce budgets openly and with shared consideration.

It appears this was an attempt to satisfy curricular review requirements, which are short and vague (see NSHE code 5.4.6), but were enough to set the University in motion in interpreting 5.4.6 with a detailed plan (authored by the President’s Office General Counsel, Mary Dugan, current Faculty Senate Chair Elliot Parker and Assistant Vice President for Human Resources Tim McFarling), even though the Faculty Senate discussed clarification of NSHE codes 5.4.5 – 5.4.7 at its January 21 meeting, the same time the academic planning document was revealed.

The notion of using curricular review for financial reasons caused concern at that meeting:

“Guy Hoelzer: The (Faculty Senate) advisory committee was asked to look at major sections of the code that they felt were issues. The university does curricular review on a regular basis, however, the tie to financial exigency was scary and faculty lost rights of notification. The committee thought that there needed to be a process that would provide protection to faculty and separate curricular review from any financial issues.”

University bylaws are another consideration. Section 2.1.3 states:

“Before any recommendation is made by the President concerning the creation, abolition, transfer, or substantial alteration in the mission, function, structure, or location of units, formal consultation shall occur with: 1) the faculty of that unit and other faculty that may be affected, 2) the dean or designated administrator concerned, and 3) the Faculty Senate. Review by the Faculty Senate will be conducted in accordance with Faculty Senate Guidelines and Procedures for the Review of Changes in Organization.”

That is what is occurring right now. Sort of. The excuse to further eliminate the University’s agricultural roots, however, was in the seed planted in the September strategic plan. In it, President Glick wrote:

“In the next six years, the University of Nevada, Reno will diminish a number of the programs which developed in good economic times, to assure capacities in the fundamental teaching, research, and outreach functions of a comprehensive research university.”

Despite the subtle double-speak, this statement hinted at what was to come – a trek down a narrowly interpreted path of what is really a gray area of administrative intent in the process known as curricular review. By characterizing what are otherwise dramatic reductions as being able to “assure capacities in the fundamental teaching, research, and outreach functions,” the University was setting the stage for what the administration perceived as curricular review requirements: to eliminate programs and faculty, a theme that’s continued to guide the process.

When the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources submitted to the Provost on April 7 its counter proposal to the curricular review, the provost’s response was clear: He rejected it outright.

One of the main reasons cited is telling: His curricular review has an intention to save money by eliminating faculty positions, departments and programs. CABNR, on the other hand, tried to save faculty positions.

The Provost, in response, refused to consider such a notion. Of six points of rebuttal to CABNR’s counter proposal, the Provost’s first is this: “It is a proposal which has a purpose of saving faculty positions rather than a proposal based on program focus.”

By trying to save its faculty, and perhaps abide by the intent of University bylaws, CABNR was attempting reason. The administration, on the other hand, was attempting to enhance the University through curricular review.

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Bob Conrad is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in journalism and counseling and educational psychology. He is currently a doctoral student of educational leadership and holds a research assistantship working on the Great Basin Environmental Program. He blogs at The Good, The Bad, The Spin and is a co-founder of This Is Reno.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR.