Religious Studies Grad Program to Close; 2 Other Reviews Continue

Issue Date: 
February 3, 2014

University of Pittsburgh Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson has accepted the proposals submitted by the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences to continue the suspension of admissions to the graduate programs in the Department of Classics and Department of German, and to close the graduate programs in the Department of Religious Studies.

Regarding the Departments of Classics and German, Beeson has asked the Dietrich School to submit proposals to either lift the suspensions or to close the programs by May 1, 2016, (German) or May 1, 2018, (Classics) in order to bring closure to the program reviews.

“This timeframe should be sufficient for the Dietrich School to pursue opportunities that have emerged through discussions over the past 18 months for the faculty in these departments to be engaged in innovative interdisciplinary graduate programs,” the provost said. She added that the longer timeframe for the classics department is intended to provide sufficient time to rebuild the faculty to a level that will enable it to continue exploring its role in interdisciplinary graduate education while advancing its undergraduate mission.

Beeson observed that these proposals have spurred discussion, particularly among the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences faculty, about the value of graduate education and the humanities—both of which are core to any great university’s mission—and have raised questions about the processes governing this type of programmatic decisions. She noted that as she considered the proposals, she solicited input through the appropriate governance committees, discussed the proposals with the affected departments’ chairs, and departments, and considered advice from colleagues.

The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences faculty, which has principal responsibility for the school’s curriculum, was engaged in the development and endorsement of these proposals. However, the faculty is not unanimously supportive of these proposals.

The April 2012 announcement that these programs were under review for possible closure—and the subsequent suspension of admissions during the review period—prompted a year-long discussion within the Dietrich School. Objections were raised and considered; critically, those discussions helped to shape the final proposals.

The Dietrich School’s governance committees, which reviewed the proposals in the context of the school’s ambitions and budget, endorsed the proposals: With two members abstaining, the Dietrich School Graduate Council voted to forward the proposals to the Dietrich School Council, which endorsed them by a 9-3 vote, with no abstentions. The school’s Planning and Budgeting Committee also endorsed the proposals, voting 12-1 in favor, with no abstentions. 

The proposals grew out of the Dietrich School’s planning process as the designated governance committees struggled with how to allocate increasingly scarce resources to support its programs. As noted in the school’s strategic planning document dated March 30, 2012, priority was given to “efforts [with] the best opportunity to have a major national or international impact;” and when faced with potential budget reductions, the Dietrich School concluded that “neither an across-the-board reallocation by department nor an across-the-board reallocation by mission could be implemented without damage to our programs.” As a result, the school decided to strategically target budget reductions and reallocations “in a manner that would improve quality (in line with our ambitions for excellence) and improve efficiency…”

Graduate education was identified as a function in which resources could be reallocated to increase the overall impact of the school’s programs and, with the engagement of the Graduate Council and the Arts and Sciences Council, criteria were developed for evaluation, including measures of quality, impact, and cost. The provost has indicated that she as well as N. John Cooper, who is the Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and the school remain committed to the undergraduate programs in the three departments. “Indeed, the school and the University remain committed to providing a broad-based liberal education including a strong presence of the humanities in the undergraduate programs,” Beeson said.

Beeson added that she has carefully monitored the processes followed by the Dietrich School from the time of the initial decision to suspend admissions to the programs. She said she agrees with the Senate Budget Policies Committee’s conclusion that the processes used in preparing these proposals “met the procedural requirements of the Dietrich School’s Bylaws and the University’s Guidelines for the Review of Academic Planning Proposals.”  

One of the most discussed procedural issues has been the timing of the initial announcement that admissions would be suspended while the programs were reviewed. Noting that there is never a good time to make such an announcement, Beeson said that the potential negative impact on the program of an early announcement had to be weighed against the potential negative impact of delaying such an announcement. The Dietrich School weighed in favor of alerting prospective students to the possibility of program closure.

“These are very difficult times for universities and the real budgetary concerns that prompted these proposals are not likely to go away any time soon,” Beeson said. Commonwealth support for the University has fallen to the level of 1995, while inflation has caused the costs of operating the University to increase by 53 percent, as measured by the CPI, or by 77 percent, using the Higher Education Price Index. Employing either measure, the Commonwealth’s inflation-adjusted annualized appropriation in recent years is at the lowest level since the University of Pittsburgh became state-related in FY1967. Federal support for research and graduate education is also in decline, and the current economic conditions and rising levels of student debt are straining graduate students’ and their families’ ability to support the costs of education. 

“Given these financial realities,” Beeson said, “as good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, we are responsible for continuously evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs. Sometimes this may require making difficult decisions like the ones discussed here. The need to make such decisions is not unique to Pitt, as underscored by announcements of program closures this past semester by institutions in our region and across the country. At the University of Pittsburgh, we remain committed to making such decisions in accordance with our established structure of shared governance and with the goal of further strengthening the University.”