By CRISTINA JANNEY
Fort Hays State University is pushing pause on a plan that would have consolidated departments within the College of Art, Humanities and Social Sciences after backlash from both students and faculty.
A letter sent to staff on April 13 by Provost Jill Arensdorf outlined the plan, which was originally set to take effect on July 1.
The proposal included consolidating the following 11 departments into schools.
- Art and Design, Music and Theatre
- Communication Studies and Leadership Studies
- Sociology and Criminal Justice
- English, Modern Languages and Philosophy
- History and Political Science
Arensdorf told the Faculty Senate in an emergency meeting Tuesday the move was meant to create efficiencies in the college, increase opportunities for interdisciplinary courses and head off the potential closure of programs by the Kansas Board of Regents.
Faculty and students expressed many concerns about the plan, including a lack of transparency from college administration, a failure to consult faculty about the changes and a lack of data to support the changes.
The FHSU Chapter of the American Association of Univerisity Professors presented a resolution against the proposed changes on April 22, in part citing the timeline. FHSU student senators at a student meeting on Monday also discussed proposing a resolution against the changes in the FHSU Student Senate.
"I will also let you know that the answer to many of your questions will be I don't know because this process is not complete," Arensdorf told the Faculty Senate. "This idea is not complete. Not all decisions have been finalized."
University seeks to address drops in enrollment
Arensdorf said the proposal was an attempt to reimagine and reinvigorate the college but may have been perceived by some as a "gut punch."
The college's enrollment has been in decline for the last five years. The number of majors in the college has dropped by 550 since 2017.
However, faculty members noted enrollment is down at universities across the country, including other Kansas Board of Regents schools in Kansas.
Arensdorf cited multiple reasons for decreased enrollment, including challenges with marketing, increased competition, the pandemic, negative perceptions of higher ed, challenges in preparing graduates for the workforce and rural population loss.
Arensdorf, as well as FHSU President Tisa Mason, said the university is under unprecedented critical review from the Regents. The university also was forced to cut $2.1 million going into the next budget year.
Arensdorf said the plan is not about cutting programs, cutting faculty or cutting staff. If administrative assistants are cut in the college, the university would seek to reassign those workers to other positions.
Although the plan would eliminate five department chairs, Arensdorf said the college would still need leaders within the individual programs.
Pay for existing chairs would be maintained for at least a year, she said.
Students seek to retain autonomy in consolidation
Students in a grassroots meeting that drew about 100 people on Monday raised concerns about the division of labor under the plan. They said they were concerned their faculty would be forced to take on more responsibilities without appropriate compensation.
Several students also said they had already been asked to take on administrative assistant duties without compensation and feared those instances would increase with the elimination of administrative assistant positions.
Students also expressed concerns about how resources and scholarships would be distributed under the school system. Faculty asked if resources would be distributed based on major headcount or credit hours.
Arensdorf Tuesday at the Faculty Senate meeting did not give specifics on the distribution of resources. However, she said she did not intend the college consolidations to affect scholarships within programs.
Arensdorf said the plan would not create many budget efficiencies.
"This is not a budgeting exercise," she said. "This is a reimagining exercise."
One of the faculty members asked Tuesday why the administration had asked the chairman of the music department to be the new chairman of the proposed combined music, theater, and art and design school. Art and design had 190 majors this fall compared to 72 in music.
Art students expressed similar concerns about the change in leadership at their meeting Monday. They also expressed concern four of the five chairs would be men even though the college has three existing chairs who are women.
Arensdorf said she would not comment on the leadership of the proposed schools because they have not been publicly announced.
Pressure from the Regents
The Regents have hired a consulting firm, RPK, to look at programs at all the universities in the Regents' system. That report is supposed to be presented to the Regents in about six months.
Arensdorf said FHSU's original timeline for the College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences restructuring was an attempt to get in front of that report.
University President Tisa Mason, who was at the Faculty Senate meeting, said "This Board of Regents is very different, hands-on, take over."
She cited three other initiatives in addition to the RPK report that could result in loss of local control.
Regents' universities are no longer in charge of deferred maintenance. They are also going through a student success initiative that will dictate retention and graduation strategies. Universities may also lose local control of student health, Mason said.
Proposal on pause not scrapped
Arensdorf said the university's next step will be to go back to the college's 11 chairs and have more dialogue on the proposed changes.
She did not say the plan was going to be scrapped, but the timeline will be pushed back until at least this fall. She said she did not anticipate such a visceral response to the proposal.
"I am not saying we're abandoning the five schools," she said, "but there's nothing magic about that. Maybe there's another way to reimagine. We need to start a dialogue. ...
"I have not once in the last two weeks heard an idea from anyone. I've heard a lot of negativity, a lot of rumors and a lot of complaints, but I have not had one idea come to me."
One faculty member asked Arensdorf if the administration would keep faculty informed and involve them in decision-making.
"I think a lack of communication with the faculty is part of the issue here," one faculty member said. "We can handle it, and we can be part of the solution.
"What I am asking is for you, Jill, the president and the deans to recommit to us and share the bad news with us, so we can be a part of it and we can avoid situations like this and move forward."
Arensdorf said she would commit to doing that.
Arensdorf was asked Tuesday by faculty if any similar reorganizations were being considered within other colleges at the university. She said no.