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December 9, 1997

TWO VIEWS:

ACHE And USA Look at Delay of Viability Report

by Edmund Tsang

The Alabama Commission on Higher Commission (ACHE) will definitely publish the report that will determine the fate of academic programs in the state's two- and four-year institutions of higher education in February, 1998, spokesperson Kay Ivey said.

The report was supposed to be released in August, 1997. It was delayed due to a budget cut by state legislators who were angry with ACHE, according to Gaynell K. Dixon, chairperson of ACHE.

"The Commission was asked by Gov. James to make recommendations to create a $50 million scholarship fund, after the Hope Scholarships in Georgia," Mrs. Dixon told The Harbinger in an interview last week. ACHE's recommendations on relocating some higher-education money to create the college scholarship fund were perceived by some legislators as hurting their constituents, Dixon explained.

Dixon pointed out that ACHE can only make recommendations but cannot make legislation. All ACHE did was to "show a way that it [creating the scholarship fund] can be done," Dixon said. "Evidently it struck some nerve. The budget cut was due to actions taken in the House." Though ACHE was late in issuing what is commonly known as the viability report, Dixon said it is "on target" to carry out Legislative Act 96-557.

In May, 1996, Gov. Fob James signed the legislation into law, giving ACHE the task of identifying and then eliminating academic programs that do not meet certain "productivity standards." An academic program that does not meet the productivity standard will have three years after being identified to increase the number of graduates; if it still does not meet the numerical standard, it will then have three years to phase out the program. A report listing academic programs in the state's two- and four-year universities that do not meet the productivity standard was first scheduled for release in July, 1997. In June, 1997 ACHE commissioners met to finalize the plan to implement the legislation, which calls for the report to be released in August, 1997.

While he is uncertain if the budget cut is the reason for the delay in releasing the viability report, Trip Pittman, ACHE commissioner representing District #1, said another ACHE report also angers some legislators. "We found some $20 million that go into programs that are not part of higher education, like subsidizing out-of-state students, private schools," Pittman said in a telephone interview last week. "When we presented that report, we were attacked aggressively by two-year systems. They are very strong in the legislature. Many of those in the two-year systems or their relatives are represented in the legislature."

Pittman said a glaring example of duplication of academic programs in Alabama is the fact that there are three 4-year universities in the state capital: Alabama State University, Auburn University-Montgomery, and The Troy State University System- Montgomery. When asked his opinions on how Montgomery got to have three universities, Pittman replied: "Politics. Patronage. Higher education in Alabama is patronage. Politicians want to maintain and protect jobs in their communities."

"They all want to maintain their own buildings and staff, even if they offer different academic programs," Pittman said. "Instead of merging and sharing resources, it's like a turf battle -- nobody wants to give up." When asked what besides politics and patronage are possible causes for the situation in Montgomery, Pittman said, "Segregation, which created a dual system. But I feel we have made great stride in this area." Pittman added: "It is absurd that Alabama A&M and Alabama State University [two historically black colleges] are now offering scholarships to white students to increase their own diversity. But nobody wants to give up their turf and [they] don't want to merge, so we continue this dual system."

Pittman said ACHE is working on many issues besides viability, "such as articulation" between two- and four year institutions. "We are working as hard as we can," Pittman added, concerning the delay in releasing the viability report

A Different Spin

Al Yeager, director of Institutional Research at the University of South Alabama (USA), said his "perspective is a little different" on why the report was delayed several times. "There were questions raised by some institutions on how to count graduates with double major in reporting on productivity," Yeager said. ACHE's staff were sending documents back and forth, Yeager explained. "I even joked that they have to buy me a file cabinet to hold all the documents they sent me," Yeager added. "There is of course a lot of bureaucratic inertia. But I think the reason is because ACHE is afraid to put out anything before the legislative session begins." "I wish they would put it out," Yeager said, because "some of the actions we have to take are constrained by ACHE's deadline."

The legislation signed by Gov. Fob James specifies that ACHE will use a numerical "productivity standard" based on the annual average number of degrees over a specified period to determine program viability. For four-year colleges and universities, the magic number is 7.5 graduates per year for baccalaureate degrees, 3.75 graduates per year for masters degrees, and 2.25 graduates per year for doctoral degrees.

It was soon pointed out that the numerical standard called for by the legislation would eliminate almost all undergraduate liberal arts program in the State of Alabama. For the University of South Alabama, the numerical standard would result in the elimination of the undergraduate programs in Russian, German, French and Spanish Language & Literature, Mathematics, Statistics, Philosophy, Physics, Economics, Dramatic Arts, Art History, Music- General, Music Performance, Music Education, and Business Economics, according to data in the 1996-97 Statistical Profile. Al Yeager of USA said he knows of no undergraduate physics, mathematics, and philosophy program in the state that can meet the productivity standards specified in the legislation.

It was also soon pointed out that many of the liberal arts program that would be eliminated because they do not meet the numerical standards serve majors in programs that do meet the numerical standard of the viability legislation. The issue of how to count double majors was raised with ACHE commissioners and staff.

During Summer, 1997, ACHE staff recommended to the commissioners that a "core liberal-arts program" be exempted from the productivity standard. For programs in the core liberal arts, the year to begin collecting data to determine viability has been shifted from 1997 to 2000. Because of this delay to begin implementing the productivity standards, non-viable programs would not face elimination until 2006.

Dr. Wes Baldwin, chair and professor of philosophy at the University of South Alabama, said the delay represents a good sign because that means "ACHE is giving themselves time to review and reconsider this issue of judging academic programs based solely on the number of graduates who enter into the work place." Baldwin said he cannot envision an institution of higher education without an undergraduate philosophy, mathematics, or physics program, all of which would be eliminated if the productivity standard is applied.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL