Music Class Students
Getty Images

Colleges Pit Music Against Math as Funding Dries Up

Jan 28, 2015

Bob Marley once sang that when music hits you, you feel no pain. But the music department at the University of Alaska at Anchorage could soon end up bruised, bloodied and down for the count.

That’s because music is being pitted against other subjects with stronger demand, such as business and engineering, as the public university cuts its budget in response to lower oil prices that have resulted in a drop in state tax revenue.

This is not happening only in Alaska. Colleges and universities across the country are going through the same painful process of winnowing their offerings to show students, lawmakers, and taxpayers they are serious about saving money. And what was once a theoretical conversation about the value of the humanities versus the sciences or business is now a very real debate over which academic programs will survive and what jobs will be lost.

Advocates welcome the chance to weed out costly programs with hardly any students, or force them to attract more and do a better job of graduating them. Critics say the budget-minded process threatens to preserve more popular departments that churn out employable graduates, such as biotechnology and nursing, at the expense of less pre-professional degrees like philosophy and history.

“That could be a very dangerous, unintended outcome,” says Sandra Elman, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accreditor for Alaska and other northwestern states. “If this is going to be looked at in terms of a financial bottom line, you don’t have to be the head of Microsoft or Nike to know that the programs that graduate the most students might end up on top,” she says. “Faculty have the right to be concerned.”

Indiana State University was among the first schools to undertake a comprehensive review of its offerings, from 2006 to 2008, which resulted in the elimination or suspension of 48 academic programs, including art history, German, and journalism as it sought to trim a bloat of offerings that had led to 8,000 empty seats in classes.

The process was painful, says Robert Guell, an Indiana State economics professor and chairman of the campus academic senate, but it was a way of “culling the walking dead. Your perspective on this depends on whether you’re the organ donor or the organ recipient,” Guell says. “The body may be healthier overall, but it still doesn’t feel good for the donor.”

To save $6 million, the University of Southern Maine is cutting French, geosciences and applied medical sciences, and consolidating six other majors: English, philosophy, and history will be combined into one department, and music, art and theater will be grouped into another. Though French is still widely spoken in Maine, the French Department had graduated an average of 4.8 majors per year for the last five years.

Other institutions have adopted a model that ranks departments according to productivity and divides them into five groups, with the bottom 20% eliminated or reorganized.

Boise State University, for instance, over the summer instructed programs in the bottom one-fifth to plan for “significant change,” says Provost Martin Schimpf. Among those slated to be cut are bachelor’s degrees in bilingual education and geophysics and a master’s degree in physical education pedagogy.

Schrimp says the process, ordered by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, will help the public university consolidate programs that were teaching the same subjects and save $2 million a year.

“We create and eliminate programs all the time,” he says. “There’s a lot of overlap and interdependence. By having a universitywide conversation, these things pop out. That’s the value of the process itself.”

But prioritization can create its share of problems, especially at schools where faculty members have been cut out of the process. Critics point to the University of Northern Iowa, which in 2012 announced it would eliminate one-fifth of its academic departments.

A December 2012 report by the American Association of University Professors derided Northern Iowa’s eliminations as “created solely as a device for laying off members of the faculty whom the administration no longer wished to retain.”

In addition to music instruction, the proposals in Alaska could doom several other programs, including the respected Alaska Quarterly Review, a literary journal.

“It’s very difficult,” says Bill Spindle, a University of Alaska Anchorage vice chancellor who has helped lead the process, which aims to save about $7 million per year. “We want to prune, we don’t want to break off branches.”

The university has ranked its programs into categories including one that calls for “further review” of departments about which questions remain and that may not have long to live. A final decision is expected to be released this week, and Spindle says cuts will be even deeper than originally expected because of a state budget shortfall.

Among those most at risk include Chinese (“[T]his program should stop creating new courses and contemplating new programs when it has only part of one faculty position,” according to the university prioritization report) and two music programs (“This is a very expensive and relatively non-productive program, and there are serious opportunity costs with putting so many resources into something that produces only four graduates in three years”).

Music Department chairman Christopher Sweeney says the actual number of graduates over those three years was closer to seven for each of the two at-risk music degrees, but he acknowledged that even this number was lower than he’d prefer.

“As much of a nightmare as it was,” said Sweeney, “it was a good wake-up call on how to serve our population better.” But he added: “We are not going down without a very, very severe fight.”

The at-risk list also includes some surprises. Chemistry is on it (“The number of graduates is very troubling”) and a graduate certificate in nursing (“This program has weak student demand”).

Also surprising are the subjects that were rated as successful—art, for instance (“an impressive level of student-centric discussion”), and medical laboratory science (“Alumni survey data indicates grads are finding employment, mostly in Alaska”).

The university urged departments to explain their value by demonstrating proof of learning, but some didn’t take the hint, says Diane Hirshberg, a professor of education policy who helped lead the prioritization study. “We had programs provide evidence,” she says. “Then we had others that said, ‘Our students know this and this,’ without providing any evidence. It’s frustrating.”

Even professors who hate the thought of universities cutting programs acknowledge it needs to happen occasionally. Schools tend to grow more than they shrink, and some departments outlive their usefulness as employment trends change.

The key to avoiding problems is transparency and communication, says Jack Maynard, the Indiana State provost who led his campus’s prioritization.

“By doing that, you take away a lot of the weapons people would use: speculation and rumor,” says Maynard, who came out of retirement recently to return as the school’s interim provost. He says Indiana State used the process to transform its identity into a stronger campus focusing on rural health care.

At other schools, however, some fret that a change in identity would be the wrong outcome. New York City’s Lehman College, for example, is undergoing a prioritization process some professors worry could shift the school away from the humanities and toward science and engineering.

“A college needs to have a philosophy department,” says Duane Tananbaum, a Lehman history professor, “even if it’s not overflowing with students.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.