14 UNCA academic programs highlighted for potential reductions, elimination

In April, as UNCA grappled with its fiscal crisis, it dismissed 12 staffers, and it previously put adjunct professors on notice that their contracts would not be renewed for the next academic year. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

by Addison Wright, avlwatchdog.org

An outside consultant recommended the University of North Carolina Asheville examine 14 of its 35 academic programs for potential course reductions or program eliminations, according to the firm’s recent presentation obtained by Asheville Watchdog. 

 Charlotte-based First Tryon Advisors recommended UNCA review the following departments: languages and literatures, physics, mathematics, chemistry, drama, economics, history, philosophy, religious studies, political science, ancient Mediterranean studies, interdisciplinary studies, education and Africana studies. They represent 40 percent of UNCA’s academic departments.

Faculty have criticized First Tryon’s methodology, saying it was biased against departments with higher-paid staff and professors on paid leave and didn’t account for work outside of their department.

UNCA Chancellor Kimberly van Noort will announce her decisions the week of June 10 as part of the university’s efforts to reduce a $6 million deficit. After giving faculty the opportunity to review and respond, she will submit the plan to UNC System President Peter Hans and the UNC Board of Governors for review in July.

“Specifically, the proposal will involve a combination of actions, including faculty reductions in some academic departments to align with enrollment trends, a reduction in our collection of academic majors, and the elimination of select academic programs,” van Noort said in a June 6 campus update.

In the update, van Noort said UNCA has met with almost a dozen department chairs and deans individually to “contextualize First Tryon’s quantitative data.”

She told The Watchdog that she is considering data in addition to First Tryon’s.

“From a quantitative standpoint, we are looking at graduation numbers and rates, number of majors, faculty-student ratios, student credit hours taught, etc. Qualitatively, we are also consulting with several departments,” van Noort said.

Kelly Biers, an associate professor of French, said he understands the need for an academic review but criticized the speed at which it’s been conducted.

“I wish it had not been so rushed with big decisions happening very quickly and when most of us are not around to participate in conversation,” Biers said.

The Watchdog made multiple attempts to reach First Tryon for comment but did not hear back from the company by deadline.

In her campus update, van Noort said the university will provide a six to 12 month notice to  tenured and tenure-track faculty in advance of any change to their employment. Other affected faculty will receive 30 to 90 days notice, according to UNC System policy.

Students in affected programs will be able to complete their degrees, van Noort said in her update, but some are worried.

“We have quite a few people that still have a year or two to earn their degree,” said Micah McKenzie, a religious studies graduate. “They’ve put all this money into this, and now all of a sudden, they’re being told that we don’t offer this anymore. That doesn’t seem very fair.”

Ona Elkins, UNCA’s spring 2024 valedictorian, double majored in political science and interdisciplinary studies, two departments under review.

“My major in political science is the reason why I have my post-graduation job opportunity with AmeriCorps and UNC School of Government,” said Elkins. “My interdisciplinary studies degree was the reason why I was able to study abroad twice in college. Both of those majors were crucial to my success academically and as a person.”

Methodology questioned

After van Noort shared First Tryon’s recommendations with department chairs, some faculty criticized the study’s methodology, saying it was biased and didn’t take into account important context.

“I think that it is probably good for any organization to have to do a regular type of analysis about this, and at the same time, important information was lost, contextual information was lost that helps us to make sense of this,” said Megan Underhill, a professor of sociology.

In its review, First Tryon calculated each department’s profit margin from 2021 to 2023, taking into account revenue from student credit hours and department expenses while factoring in how many students each professor teaches. Salaries make up the lion’s share of each department’s expenses.

First Tryon assessed each department based on the number of credit hours majors bring in and the number of elective classes non-majors might take. In its presentation, First Tryon recommended reviewing majors that were in low demand and individual course offerings that appeared unsustainable because of low enrollment.

“It’s only by the first metric that we appear to be ‘too expensive,’ which is not a surprise because we are a department that has more minors than majors because we make a good complement to other programs,” said Biers.

The political science department was flagged for a negative profit margin in 2023. Two professors were on paid paternity leave during that time, said Mark Gibney, a professor of humanities and political science.

Some faculty questioned First Tryon’s reliance on student credit hours in its profit margin assessments, saying they spend paid time outside of their departments teaching liberal arts core classes, serving on faculty senate, conducting research, doing administrative work and serving programs such as UNCA’s academic success center.

A review every few years

In April, as UNCA grappled with its fiscal crisis, it dismissed 12 staffers, and it previously put adjunct professors on notice that their contracts would not be renewed for the next academic year. The financial shortfall stems partly from a dramatically shrinking enrollment over more than a decade. The enrollment decline has in turn reduced the funding from the UNC system.

“There’s a hiring freeze, and they’ve encouraged some faculty members to retire early to relieve some of the budget pressures,” Underhill said. “So you’re losing faculty members, and there will be no replacements for the foreseeable future, which means you just now have a smaller number of people doing the same amount of work.”

Van Noort said she plans to conduct a similar academic review every few years.

“We will implement regular reviews as mandated by the new UNC System policy. It is best practice,” van Noort told The Watchdog. “We will certainly be looking at program margins and other quantitative and qualitative data in all reviews moving forward.”

Faculty members say doing so could disincentivize research, faculty service assignments, paid leave and tenure, because departments need to drive up their department credit hours, or class sizes, to have a positive profit margin under First Tryon’s methodology. This leaves less time for pursuits such as scholarship needed for tenure, some faculty members said.

“Presumably our strength here at this university is our student-focused, student-centric small classes and attention to individual students,” said Peter Haschke, co-chair and professor of the political science department. “This goes out of the window because these metrics emphasize teaching as many students as cheaply as possible.”

UNCA is not the only UNC university to reduce academic programs after conducting an outside review. The University of North Carolina Greensboro announced in February that it would cut 20 academic programs because of budget constraints. The university’s review, which was not conducted by First Tryon, was met with criticism from students and faculty.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Addison Wright graduated from UNCA, where she majored in mass communications and political science. She served as news editor for The Blue Banner, UNCA’s school newspaper. The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.


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4 thoughts on “14 UNCA academic programs highlighted for potential reductions, elimination

  1. Keith

    The future Ron Desanctimonius Community College of Asheville will be a profit center for the new regime. Shock and awe.

  2. Teknik Informatika

    What was the main criticism of the study’s methodology shared by some faculty members?

  3. Voirdire

    Quite the graphic included with the article… sounds/looks like to me they should simply close the school. Who needs to study any of those superfluous subjects like Economics, History, Political Science, Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Education, and Languages and Literature anyway? Is it any wonder characters like the Rump and his millions of minions
    ( and let’s not forget the lovely world dictators he’s so enamored with and their ilk) are so appealing to so many of our fellow citizens these days? We’re in big trouble here.

  4. indy499

    UNCA’s problem is on the revenue side. Lousy enrollment. WCU a fraction of the cost and neither degree is some springboard to riches.

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