Uncertainty looms three months after Northwestern College announced it would be cutting 11 faculty positions and three majors.
In the upcoming academic year, majors in literature, philosophy and writing and rhetoric will be discontinued. Less than 10 underclassmen with those majors are affected by the change; however, the correlating staff reduction has hit several departments including art, English, history, music and theatre.
“It seems that the fine arts are always first on the chopping block because they are smaller programs,” said Ashlynn Anderson, a junior music major. “It is frustrating because students involved in the arts constantly have to show that they are valuable.”
The cuts are concentrated in the arts and humanities, a trend seen at other colleges across the country.
While these areas contract, others are expanding. NW is adding a new master’s degree program in physician assistant studies and athletic training, and it is investing funds in renovating classrooms and laboratories for those programs.
“It is always hard to eliminate programs and especially the people who lead those programs,” President Greg Christy said in an email. “However, we are maintaining faculty and curriculum in each of these areas and they will continue to be an important part of the Northwestern Core going forward, providing all Northwestern students with a strong liberal arts core along with whatever program they choose to major in.”
The liberal arts date back to the Ancient Greeks. Grammar, logic and rhetoric were considered the core skills needed to participate in public life.
That tradition found its way into American colleges and universities. Offering an education in the liberal arts — learning how to reason and write — was the founding principle of some of today’s top institutions such as Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale.
While majors in these areas at NW are being eliminated, the coursework isn’t completely going away.
As Christy mentioned, NW will continue to offer courses from the discontinued majors in the core curriculum. English courses will be taught in a restructured major geared toward English teaching.
“I’m grateful that at Northwestern there is still a strong commitment to a core that is rich in humanities learning,” said Keith Fynaardt, chair of the English department. “Unfortunately, we need fewer people to deliver that core, and the loss of colleagues in English saddens me.”
One of his colleagues, Michael Kensak, won’t be returning this fall because of the faculty cuts. He’s been at NW for 21 years.
“I pray that the administration will remember that close reading and effective writing are central to both a liberal arts education and job market success,” Kensak said. “Personally, I’m retooling for a major life change. Given the job market in my field, this termination ended not only my job but my career as well.”
Nationwide, the number of college graduates with a degree in English, history and philosophy fell from 35% to 20% between 2008 and 2016 while the total number of bachelor’s degrees earned during that time increased by 31%, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute.
With a significant cut to NW’s English department, the public relations major will also be affected, but to what extent is unclear. PR relied on the English department to provide a lot of writing opportunities to students in that major.
“As we are looking at what the new English department becomes, I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure that the PR major maintains its strong focus in writing and in design,” said Ann Minnick, public relations program director. “I see the major being rearranged a little bit. We are going to accomplish the same things but in a little different format of classes.”
The history department also lost one professor.
“We will still have a history major and a history minor,” said Robert Winn, chair of the history department. “Beyond that, I am not yet in a position to make any public comments on the future of the department.”
Among the 11 faculty positions being eliminated, five of those affected by reductions are retiring. That includes Karen Barker, a theater professor and the dean of the arts and humanities division, and her husband, Jeff Barker, chair of the theatre department.
A position was also lost in the art department, and changes are planned there as well.
“We will make the graphic design major stronger, and we are also looking at ways to enhance the art therapy minor,” Karen Barker said. “Losses are never easy to take, but we are confident that even with this cut, students will continue to be well served.”
Some students are upset by the changes, especially those in the cut majors. They feel this is a personal attack and that the loss of these majors will result in narrow-minded students.
“This isn’t the first time that [Northwestern] has attempted to cut [these departments],” said Garret Beeck, a senior philosophy major. “As for the philosophy department, the administration couldn’t care less if our students can actually think for themselves and empathize with others.”
Others thought that NW’s priorities were out of line in the decision.
“Northwestern put the bottom line over student experience when they let go of many faculty this past winter,” said Caleb Arnett, a sophomore political science major. “Not only were many of them amazing professors, but many also added academic diversity that now the college risks lacking in. For us students, it’s a big question mark on whether the administration is really committed to diversity on campus or if it’s just another slogan to attract prospective students.”
Anderson, who has appreciated her music education and experience, sees that less faculty members means a decreased capacity to provide students with the time and attention they need.
“Having departmental cuts closes doors on potential opportunities and relationships to be made for students, adds more stress and a larger workload for the professors to handle later and shows prospective students, current students and those who view campus that the arts and their corresponding majors are not worth the time and money they are putting into the program,” she said.
The academic program changes stemmed from an 18-month, faculty-led process of analyzing the quality, productivity, relevance and opportunity of every academic program currently offered.
The Academic Program Prioritization Task Force was made up of five staff members and overseen by the vice president of academic affairs. They evaluated each department based on six criteria: missional impact, market demand, institutional demand, program profile, potential and cost.
News of the results was publicly released a week before Christmas.
The NW press release said the college is in “an enviable financial position relative to many colleges and universities, with a healthy endowment and minimal debt, and has exceptional facilities.”
However, in an email, Christy said these cuts are due to financial reasons, yet the college has not declared financial exigency, which means the decline of the college’s financial resources.
According to the staff handbook, financial exigency is one of five reasons that a staff member can be released, along with professional incompetence, moral dereliction, disaffection from the Christian commitment and violation of the contractual letter.
In addition, the handbook says an effort must be made to place terminated individuals in other suitable positions or offer them the option to move from full-time to part-time service instead of termination, but Christy said no terminated individuals were offered part-time work.
Standards outlined by the American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit membership association of faculty and other academic professionals, give colleges the right to eliminate academic programs for educational reasons decided by the faculty. However, that is decidedly supposed to be an educational decision-making process, not a budget-cutting process.
Although Christy has stated that these cuts are financially-related, they also are part of the educational decision-making process, stating that those who are part of the layoffs are in areas where the college has decided to withdraw.
While these departmental changes have created some confusion for students as to how classes will be run in the future, NW stated how their focus on liberal arts will still be evident through their core classes. As NW changes with the times, the students hope the college will continue to focus on what’s best for the students’ education.