TIME Education

Colleges Pit Music Against Math as Funding Dries Up

Music Class Students
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Limited money is causing state schools to choose among subjects with the most demand

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.

TIME Education

UC Berkeley Fires Administrator for Stealing Thousands to Pay for Kids’ Tuition

Sonia Chante Waters was put in a charge of grant money at the public university despite a history of embezzlement

A woman with a previous felony embezzlement conviction was given control of public and donated money at the University of California at Berkeley, where she is accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars to pay for her childrens’ private-school tuition and other expenses.

Sonia Chante Waters, 36, was charged May 19 by Alameda County prosecutors with nine felony counts of grand theft and embezzlement. She was free in lieu of $75,000 bail and faces up to five years in prison, according to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

Waters, the daughter of a former UC Berkeley employee and prominent Black Panthers leader, allegedly forged a former dean’s signature on university checks several times beginning in early 2013. The checks were used to pay tuition at Berkeley’s École Bilingue, a French-language school her two sons, 11 and 6, attended.

In an interview, Waters’ attorney, Mark Vermeulen, says his client admitted she had stolen university money. A university spokeswoman said UC Berkeley was still determining the amount stolen, but Vermeulen says the school told him it could be as much as $90,000.

Financial and family problems led to the theft, Vermeulen says. Waters and her husband had been raising her young cousin, he says, in addition to their own children.

“There were a number of things going on in her life that led to poor judgment on her part,” Vermeulen says. “It certainly doesn’t excuse it or explain it. But she didn’t lead an extravagant lifestyle, by any means.”

Waters was hired by UC Berkeley as an assistant in 2003. She left in 2004 for a job at The Hartford financial and insurance company, but returned to UC Berkeley in 2007 after being fired from The Hartford after she was discovered stealing company funds. Waters pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2009, while employed at UC Berkeley. She was sentenced to three years of probation and agreed to pay Hartford more than $32,000, according to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors dropped the grand theft charge as part of a plea agreement.

Soon after the conviction, Waters was promoted to administer millions of dollars in grants and private donations as a research administrator at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. The university was apparently unaware of her criminal record. UC Berkeley failed to perform mandatory background checks before promoting Waters and she never mentioned the crime to her superiors, a university spokeswoman tells TIME.

UC Berkeley officials declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but spokeswoman Janet Gilmore admits that “a hole in our practices” had allowed some employees to move into “sensitive” jobs without undergoing the background checks required for those positions.

Gilmore says the school was looking into how that had happened and whether other employees also avoided the background checks. She declined to say whether other employees would be disciplined as a result of Waters’ actions, but the administrator in charge of Waters’ department, Denise Harter, announced her retirement on May 23 as TIME investigated the embezzlement.

UC Berkeley rules make it clear Waters should have been excluded from her position. According to a university FAQ on criminal background checks, “Individuals with criminal convictions for theft, embezzlement, identity theft or fraud cannot be hired into positions with fiduciary responsibilities.”

Integrity has been an issue for UC Berkeley administrators in recent years. In 2012, an assistant vice chancellor was demoted from her $188,000-a-year job, then fired, after reports she had helped triple her lover’s salary to $120,000. The administrator, Diane Leite, never admitted the affair publicly, but the relationship was confirmed by university investigators.

Waters was fired in April from her nearly $73,000-a-year position after the university put her on paid leave in March. An April 9 letter from the university informing her of the decision cited “dishonesty, theft and misappropriation of university property” and noted Waters had admitted writing university checks to pay about $8,500 toward each child’s approximately $25,000-per-year tuition at École Bilingue.

The letter said Waters led École Bilingue to believe the money was a loan from her UC pension fund, while Waters told investigators she had disguised the payments by pretending to rent classrooms at the French school for university purposes. The university apparently discovered the embezzlement when École Bilingue contacted UC Berkeley to ask about a third tuition payment for $8,700.

According to a probable-cause declaration justifying the charges against her, Waters told UC police “she did not think she made good money” and that she had planned on returning the stolen funds. She also is accused of stealing university money to pay for more than $8,800 in catering, $28,000 in computers and phones, nearly $39,000 worth of gift cards and $8,000 in other expenses.

Although the signature of Stephen Shortell, the School of Public Health’s former dean, was on the invoices used by Waters, he said in an interview he had not signed the documents. Investigators said they found photocopies of Shortell’s signature in Waters’ desk.

According to a 2010 obituary in the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s student newspaper, Waters’ father, Ronald Stevenson, was an early member of the Black Panthers and was heavily involved in the Berkeley community. He received a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, where he led the effort to rename the student union after Martin Luther King Jr.

Stevenson later founded and directed a UC Berkeley-led tutoring program for at-risk children.

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