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June 10, 1997

ACHE Adopts Plan to Trim Higher Education

by Edmund Tsang

The commissioners of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) met on June 5 and voted to adopt all the recommendations of its staff to begin implementing the state legislation, Act 96-557, to reduce the number of academic programs in the state's institutions of higher education, which many critics of higher learning in Alabama, including Gov. Fob James, call "unnecessary and wasteful duplication."

The recommendations adopted by ACHE include a process for carrying out the review to identify "viable" from "non-viable" programs, the criteria for petitioning a waiver, and the process for phasing out the non-viable programs. As part of that plan, ACHE will publish in August, 1997 a report to identify the academic programs that meet the "viability standards" established by Legislative Act 96-557 and those that do not.

For four-year universities such as the University of South Alabama located in Mobile, a baccalaureate degree program must graduate 7.5 graduates per year to be considered "viable" under the "productivity standards" of Act 96-557. For a masters-degree program, the standard is 3.75 graduates per year; and for a doctoral-degree program, 2.25 graduates per year.

The review process that ACHE will use to determine if an academic program meets the "viability standards" will consist of two steps: Institutions of higher education will use their most recent five-year data beginning January 1997 that they supplied to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS) annual completions survey to calculate the number of graduates in each degree program during a Level I review. Those that do not meet the numerical requirement for viability will undergo a second review. For baccalaureate programs, double majors but not those enrolled in teacher certification programs will be included in the number of graduates a degree program produces to meet "viability standards" during the Level II review. Academic programs that do not meet the numerical requirement after the second review will be monitored for three years during which the institution will devise a plan to offer instruction to their students to meet the viability standards, including distance learning - - the use of technologies such as live, two-way video broadcasts to reach students beyond one campus.

Those academic programs that still do not graduate the required number of graduates per year at the end of the 3-year monitoring period can request a waiver from ACHE, and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis using the seven factors described in Legislative Act 96-557, plus one criterion governing the liberal arts that the ACHE staff has recommended to the commissioners for adoption. Those not granted waiver will be phased out over three years.

The Past Catches Up With the Present

One of the seven waiver criteria described in Legislative Act 96-557 helps explain what critics of Alabama's higher education term "expensive duplication of programs," and is intimately tied to the past history of racial segregation in the State of Alabama.

Alabama State University, a historically black college located in Montgomery, was created by the state legislators in 1887. In the 1960s, both Auburn University and Troy State University opened branch campuses in Montgomery, with the approval of the state legislature.

Similarly, Alabama A&M was created in 1873 by the state legislators in Normal, Alabama. The school was known as Huntsville Normal School at the time, and changed its name to State Agriculture and Mechanical College for Negroes in 1891 after it received Federal Land-Grant status. The final name-change to Alabama A&M occurred in 1969 with the approval of the State Board of Education. In the late 1960s, the University of Alabama opened a branch campus in Huntsville, located 30 miles south of Normal.

According to Rep. John Knight, "the State Legislature allows other schools to place branch campuses in the same service area of Alabama State University and Alabama A&M so white folks don't have to attend historically black universities." Knight is a plaintiff in lawsuit named after him, Knight v. Alabama, filed in 1979 and joined by the Department of Education, to end de facto segregation in Alabama's higher education. Federal Judge Harold Murphy ruled for the plaintiffs, and Knight v. Alabama is now a factor that ACHE commissioners have to consider in granting waivers to programs deemed "non- viable."

The USA Picture

According to the 1996-1997 Statistical Profile published by the University of South Alabama, the following programs would be considered "non- viable" under ACHE's "productivity standards": for Bachelor's degree, Russian Language & Literature (with an average of 2 graduates per year over the last five years); German Language & Literature (1.2 graduates average); French Language & Literature (1.6 graduates average); Spanish Language & Literature (2.4 graduates average); Mathematics (2.4 graduates average); Statistics (3.2 graduates average); Philosophy (2.6 graduates average); Physics (1.2 graduates average); Economics (1.4 graduates average); Dramatic Arts (1.2 graduates); Art History (3.4 graduates average); Music, General (3.8 graduates average); Music Performance (3 graduates average); Music Education (0.4 graduates average); and Business Economics (4 graduates average). For masters program, Chemical Engineering (with 3 graduates averaged over the last five years), Mechanical Engineering (2 graduates average), and Sociology (1.8 graduates average) would be deemed "non-viable."

Alfred Yeager, Director of Institutional Research of the University of South Alabama (USA), said he knows of no undergraduate physics, mathematics, or philosophy program in the state that meets the current "productivity standards," and among the foreign language and literature programs in the state, perhaps only one, Spanish, meets the numerical requirement.

According to data compiled by ACHE, there are currently in the state of Alabama ten general physics, sixteen mathematics, five philosophy, seven drama/theater arts, twelve art, and nine general music baccalaureate programs in public four-year institutions. For foreign language and literature programs, there are two Russian, seven German, ten French, nine Spanish, and one classical and ancient near eastern language and literature baccalaureate programs in the state.

The Faculty Senate at USA adopted earlier this Spring a resolution supporting the Faculty Senate Legislative Liaison Committee of the University of North Alabama (UNA), criticizing the "productivity standard" of 7.5 graduates for baccalaureate programs in four-year institutions as "arbitrary." The faculty senates at USA and UNA said this arbitrary number penalizes smaller institutions, since "it is much easier for an institution with 20,000 students to meet this number than for an institution of 2,000 students." It also penalizes efficient programs in smaller institutions because "a program which graduates 4 or 5 students per year with 4 or 5 faculty in the department would be 'non-viable'; the same program at a larger institution which graduates 8 or 9 students with 20 or 30 faculty would be 'viable.'"

The faculty senators from both schools also argue that "most highly qualified faculty in four-year institutions will not wish to remain at an institution if their major is eliminated and highly qualified faculty could not be attracted to teach at such institutions," leading to a lower quality as a result. They also argue that "the law will not result in significant savings."

Distance Learning

Jane McPherson, a commissioner representing the 4th Congressional District, said in a telephone interview last week that she believes distance learning -- the use of live, two-way video broadcast linking two or more centers -- is one method that universities might "pool resources" to maintain degree programs.

Roland Pugh, an at-large commissioner, told The Harbinger in a telephone interview last week that the commissioners have been discussing the use of distance learning for some time as a way to consolidate academic programs. He rejected the contention by some that it would not result in any savings because the technology for distance learning is very expensive. "I am not sure that's the case," Pugh said. "There are no cost figures that have been presented to us to demonstrate that." In fact, Pugh said, distance learning has already been implemented in some institutions of higher learning in Alabama.

Bettye Fine Collins, a commissioner from the 6th Congressional District, said on June 3 that she is still considering the recommendations of the ACHE staff that will be decided by the commissioners at the June 5 meeting concerning waiver criteria, including exempting a core liberal-arts program and counting double majors towards attaining the numerical productivity standard. "I am not sure that's way we ought to go," Collins said. "But I have been known to be swayed by the other commissioners' arguments."

In an earlier interview with The Harbinger in April, Collins said she is against establishing any waiver criteria because officials from higher education will "invariably find loopholes" in whatever criteria ACHE establishes for waiver. "Then the commission will be meeting forever to deal with these waivers," Collins said then. She also wants "real teeth" in enforcing the consolidation of academic programs. In the April interview, she told The Harbinger the case involving an aviation training program offered by two 2- year colleges in the state. "Even though one of the two director's positions was eliminated," Collins said, "but everyone on the staff stayed on and the program in fact expanded."

Commissioner McPherson is also against establishing any waiver criteria. All requests for waivers should be evaluated on a "case-by-case basis," she told The Harbinger on June 2.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL