Disclosure: It is not typically Top o’ the World’s policy to publish anonymous opinion pieces. However, we’ve elected to make an exception regarding the following due to the thoroughness of the piece and the university-wide impact the SRA report has had on students and faculty. The following is not inherently reflective of the views or values of Top o’ the World.
In carefully studying the SRA report, my conclusion is that the SRA is unreliable as the basis for making any decisions. The Trustees would be well-advised to consider the points below before approving any final actions.
The report is long on discussion of methodology and statistics, but short on strategic thinking. The report is devoid of meaningful background on the history of Western and how it evolved to its current position. Worse, it contains no real discussion of where Western should go in the future, and why.
For any organization, a high-quality strategy involves looking backward, looking forward, examining strengths and weaknesses versus competitors, and ultimately plotting a course that is logical and has a compelling story supporting it. The SRA does none of this. In short, it is a reactionary response to the misguided belief that the only way to survive is to cut programs. In essence, the SRA is a popularity contest and rigged game of musical chairs to subjectively decide “who gets left without a chair.”
The report is unreliable because the conclusions are highly suspect. At best, the leap from the study’s data to its conclusions is weakly supported. At worst, the SRA report and the work behind it is nefarious. The recommendation to gut the Music program is a glaring example.
Consider the following: By far, Music is being cut the most. However, its performance is better than other programs being cut less. Unlike other programs proposed for cuts, the SRA report contains no meaningful narrative describing the rationale for the Music program recommendations. Given the magnitude of proposed Music program cuts, much more discussion and transparency should exist in the report. To illustrate, the graphic below compares the level of cuts and number of words of discussion contained in the report by academic area.
$21,864 in cuts are recommended for the History program for example, and 266 words are devoted to this topic in the report. For Music, drastic cuts of $256,401 are recommended (10 times that for History and a level that severely damages the program), but a paltry 59 words of discussion are provided. And the $256,401 in Music cuts are more than half the total cuts of $484,958. What is going on here? Either minimal thought underlies the proposed cuts to Music, or something nefarious is occurring. This process is far from transparent.
Finally, for all academic programs undergoing cuts other than Music, recommendations are provided to grow these programs. This is good. But why not Music? The Music Department has recently developed a number of compelling strategies to grow enrollment. Why are these not mentioned? Why is Music not being given a chance to adjust course and grow? This could easily be accommodated, and the Music major saved, by allocating cuts in a more equitable fashion across the university. Music is on the cusp of having a big year for new enrollments based on student applications received. This growth will be forfeit if the Music major is eliminated.
Western’s Board-approved operating budget for FY20/21 is approximately $68 million. The proposed Music program cuts are 0.4% of this. Are we to believe that Western’s leaders cannot determine a better approach than destroying the Music program? The study appears to be a popularity contest whereby the “majority” collectively sought to avoid any cuts and was willing to allow the “minority” to be eviscerated. It calls to mind the television show Survivor where someone had to get thrown off the island, and for some reason the Music program was most convenient to eliminate. This is incredibly short-sighted.
Additional important questions the Trustees should consider are:
1) One of the five pillars of Western’s 2018-2023 strategic plan is Community Relations. How does gutting the Music program align with this? Western is one of the Gunnison Valley’s most important providers of arts programming. It is revealing that page 23 of the SRA report states, “Any community impact in the Gunnison Valley stemming from SRA recommendations for reductions are not projected to adversely affect recruitment…” Evidently, the authors of the study do not care about the adverse impact to the community of losing access to the arts, and only think of the community as a source of revenue.
2) What is the basis for the projections of enrollment growth contained in the SRA? If we assume that Western’s operating budget is currently very tight, then it is critical to achieving enrollment growth in order to fund the approximately $1 million of net expenditure increases recommended in the SRA. What is the basis for the enrollment growth estimates? What specifically will be done to promote growth? Or will growth just magically happen because the authors of the study had to show growth in order to justify the net expenditure increase? What is actually going to be done to make Western more attractive to prospective students?
3) Western is known first and foremost as a liberal arts school. Do the Trustees really believe Western can pivot to become a successful STEM school? If so, let us see the competitive analysis and strategic thinking on this.
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Note: The author of this editorial wishes to remain anonymous. His credentials include 35 years of experience in industry and management consulting, engineering and MBA degrees, and executive education in competitive strategy from The Wharton School.