Tightening budgets and questions of program sustainability have several Michigan State University academic programs under review and up for elimination. In an effort to strengthen the future of MSU’s academic success, the university is making decisions on a number of educational proposals, which will affect students and professors alike. The potential discontinuation of some of MSU’s most popular undergraduate programs however, may be impacting students more than we know.
As part of Michigan State’s responsibility to university commitments and strong programs, the University Committee on Academic Policy (UCAP) reviewed nine moratorium requests last month. Linda Stanford, the associate provost for academic services at MSU, serves as a liaison to the community on curriculum. Her role in the discontinuation process is to make sure that moratorium requests sent to UCAP are complete and easily understood. “Moratorium requests are submitted by a college,” Stanford said. “If a department and college are thinking about discontinuing a program, they first have to send in a request for a moratorium, or a suspension on student admission for the new semester.”
Moratoriums allow those who are accepted into a program to finish out their degree, so once a student is in, they are safe from the threat of exclusion. Many times, programs will honor rising juniors, allowing current sophomores to continue with a program. But for freshman and students who are simply too far behind in requirements and unable to meet admission deadlines, they must seek a different route.
While switching majors is no easy task, especially when a student had no intentions of switching to begin with, there is a greater overlap in programs and courses then students might expect. “Sometimes programs are related that students are not aware of,” Stanford said. “Because a program is discontinued, it doesn’t mean all the courses are going away. You can still take courses in a certain field while in a different program.” Although some program titles may sound unrelated to a desired field of study, many classes required in one program may be required or available in a separate but similar field. Associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies, Doug Estry, agrees that in most cases there are alternatives. “Freshmen are advised into alternative areas that may allow them to still achieve their goal,” Estry said.
But while some students succeed in finding a new career path, the change is a highly sensitive and difficult one for others. The same difficulty applies to the university’s decision on whether or not to discontinue or disband a program. “Clearly, budgetary constraints are a primary force behind accelerating decisions. If we look at it another way, Michigan State has to maintain quality educational programs for its students. We have to decide where we are going to invest. You have to look at the total picture,” Estry said.
According to Estry, there are a series of underlying reasons for a program’s discontinuation. These could include low enrollment, the number of faculty and faculty productivity, retirements and degree awards. While some academic specializations may look like they have high enrollment, actual student awards may be low, indicating students have an interest in the specialization, but are not completing it. Yet, even while some programs affect a relatively small number of students, the impact they have is big. “Students’ sense is to resist any change in their major,” Estry said. “Emotion plays a big part in all of this, there’s that emotional attachment to their program.”
As the December cuts continue, the nine requests will be considered, as issues from colleges, faculty and students are heard by UCAP. Findings will be reported to the provost, where they will consult with others to reach a decision. Undergraduate students pursuing majors in American studies, music therapy, deaf education, communicative sciences and disorders and veterinary technology, along with many more, wait to learn their program’s fate.
While it’s impossible to predict which programs will stay and which will not, their uncertain futures require that some students switch sooner rather than later. Sophomore and former veterinary technician major Lauren Wisnieski realized she needed a backup when she learned her program had suspended admission. “I heard about it through the vet clinic I was shadowing,” Wisnieski said. “I had been shadowing and taking certain classes, but have now had to pick a new major.”
Like many other students, Wisnieski was caught in the middle. She had been gearing her classes and time toward the major, but as a transfer student, would not be able to meet admission requirements by the deadline. The risk of continuing in a program that might be eliminated was one Wisnieski was not willing to take. “It was a frustrating change. There were no other four year vet tech programs I could transfer to that were as good as MSU’s,” she said.
While the veterinary technician program is a popular one, it must be reviewed to see whether or not it is central to MSU’s veterinary medicine. “The College of Veterinary Medicine looks at its primary responsibility, to prepare doctors of primary medicine. The vet tech program is not central to that, although a popular one. We can’t cut our commitment to our doctors. We have to make some serious decisions,” Estry said.
Wisnieski, who had not known about her program’s tentative status, was thankful she had gotten the message from someone. “If I hadn’t heard it from the vet tech clinic, I doubt MSU would have informed me,” Wisnieski said. Though not highly publicized, MSU seeks to keep students and faculty informed of academic changes at its new Web site. Here, students can find the latest changes in programs and discontinuations.
While Wisnieski was pleased with her change of major to animal science, other students continue to fight for their programs. Recent campus demonstrations and petitions have sparked a growing student voice, proving that although some programs may not be central to MSU’s criterion, they are in fact central to students’ futures. These actions along with involvement in the academic governance process, said Estry, are ways which students can be sure that their voices are heard.