Engaging faculty, staff, students, and community partners in working together can help universities look to the future.
By Thomas Barker | Fellow
While this article is being composed, a new Fall semester is starting at universities across North America. The breezy blue skies, crisp temperatures, and yellowing leaves bring an air of excitement to the hearts of students and faculty. They do to mine, as I look out over the University of Alberta Campus from my office window in the Humanities Centre. The grassy green lawn with the babbling fishpond is dotted with clusters of students sporting backpacks and sweaters.
This is my 50th year as a university faculty member, so the annual thrill of a new beginning is somewhat diminished when I read about persistent budget cuts in higher education. I can’t help but wonder how these cuts will affect students, faculty, programs, and staff in all academic units, and especially in technical communication. These changes encourage me to reflect on the direction that universities are taking and the role they play in our society.
In this article, we look at the academic conversation surrounding the dramatic budget cuts at West Virginia University that have made shock waves in the news. After looking at these cuts against the backdrop of decades-long social trends, we will focus on the effects they have on technical communication programs. Stepping back from this, we ask, How can these changes help us understand the way universities are transforming under our very eyes? We conclude by taking a closer look at “transformation initiatives” in higher education and recent shifts in technical communication toward a cultural approach. I hope this exploration helps us see into the future of universities and the role that faculty, staff, students, and community partners play.
Budget Cuts at WVU
The conversation about cuts at WVU is being carried out in a number of news outlets, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Inside Higher Education, and National Public Radio. The cuts have been described as “dangerous” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Associated Press Service sees them as a “crisis.” Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, said they would “dramatically narrow educational opportunities” for all students. How big are these cuts and why are they so upsetting?
The Washington Post article by Nick Anderson, reports that the actual deficit, given the funding from the State of West Virginia, is $45 million. Anderson reports that 32 majors (out of 338 total) would be discontinued and 7% of the faculty would be eliminated. The preliminary recommendations document shows which programs might be discontinued, which continued but advised to change, and which were retained. As of this writing, the Board of Governors has yet to approve the cuts, but it is expected that they will follow the recommendations of the review panel, which has been studying programs at WVU since May 2023. (Note: At the time this article goes to press the Inside Higher Ed has reported that the WVU Board of Governors voted on Friday, September 15 to cut 143 faculty positions and 28 academic programs.)
The cuts upset many academics because they target language and humanities areas of the university. These include programs in French, German Studies, Russian Studies, Spanish, and Linguistics. These and many of the programs in the arts and education are seen as central to the core areas of a liberal arts education. That broad-based education, historically, has been the basis of state university curricula because it ensures that students will have a balanced education. Paula Krebs points this out in her letter to President Gordon Gee of WVU: “A full liberal arts education includes providing students with the tools that enable them to interact both with their neighbors in West Virginia and with the rest of the world.”
Another window into these cuts at WVU is to look at the criteria used to identify areas to cut. These are spelled out in the Academic Program Portfolio Review on the WVU website. The primary metrics are enrollment as of Fall 2022, and research contributions in terms of dollars as recorded for each unit. These two criteria, with some exceptions and limitations of scope, were the primary metrics. They identify programs and departments scheduled for: no action, continue with no specific action, continue with specific action (such as combining with another unit), and (the dreaded) discontinue. The list of programs that meet the criteria for discontinue ranges across disciplines and takes an objective approach. Empty seats and no big grants means you get cut and that’s it.
While the programs being cut seem to fall into the languages and humanities areas, they are, as far as I can see, unbiased and objective on the surface. Assumptions that humanities or languages are being targeted do not show up in the list derived from the application of these two criteria. To understand where bias toward, say, science, technology, and business majors and courses (as specified in the letter by Paula Krebs), we need to look beyond the present controversy over the slimming of WVU to the overall slimming impact of social and political trends over the last few decades.
Budget Cuts: The Big Picture
When you look at the cuts in higher education over the last 20 years, a pattern emerges quickly. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only four states have increased budgets from 2008 to 2017. These reporters call it, “A Lost Decade in Higher Education Funding.” But this may be the tip of the iceberg. If we look back at social and political trends just since I was born, we can see a number of trends that have resulted in a changing and diminishing role for universities in social and public life. These trends include the following:
- Access to information. Information technology, social media, the internet have decentralized information and learning from universities. Universities no longer hold the keys to knowledge.
- Globalization of markets. Organizations need to serve customers in other countries, which foregrounds lived experience over university-style book learning as a qualification for employment. Languages are important, but the explosion of language training and translation apps has, at least in the eyes of some, diminished the need for university training in these subjects.
- Changes in social institutions and healthcare. Social services and healthcare sectors play a much larger role than they did in previous times, often taking a community-led approach over the theory- or research-based approach that is characteristic of universities.
- Decentralization of government. Since the groundbreaking movement toward joined-up, streamlined government—big in the 1980s—governments have increasingly relied on outsourced services to citizens. In this environment, the priority is on organizational effectiveness based on organizational development models and less on a university, “brain-trust” approach.
- Changes in organizational management. The decentralization of management that occurred during the 1990s has continued in today’s institutions. Universities have been slow to adjust to this contractual, experience-based model of employment.
Governments and the public sector have responded to these trends by reducing in size and streamlining services, and they have expected the educational sector to do the same. The result has been new government, new healthcare, and new universities. In this era of transformation, what are some of the effects on technical communication programs?
Effects on Technical Communication Programs
The effects of budget and social trends on technical communication (TC) programs can be seen in three areas: staff, faculty, and connections to other programs.
Staff. Staff cuts are the hidden cost to programs. At WVU, for example, around 500 non-academic staff were eliminated: a fact that does not make national news. For program executives, counselors, and other persons associated with TC programs, this means a loss of institutional knowledge about courses, electives, and degree planning that staff members possessed. No more Rolodex of contacts. It cuts connections with community members who hire graduates, interns, and service-learning students. Sure, these connections can be rebuilt, but as we know from the pandemic, you cannot just flip a switch to reactivate personal relationships.
Faculty. Faculty reductions can affect programs because they impede the hiring of new personnel to respond to curriculum changes, and they oversimplify the faculty role. Faculty is a complex term that covers teaching and service faculty, faculty ranks, and faculty connections with other departments. For example, in Writing, Editing, and Publishing Faculty, the WVU faculty is closely aligned with other writing units, such as creative writing and linguistics—programs that were cut.
Connections with other programs. Technical communication has always been interdisciplinary due to the nature of communication itself. At WVU the program welcomes pairing with Biology, Chemistry, Geology, History, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology. These degrees reflect the broad application of technical communication, and cuts in them represent cuts in opportunities for students to double major and expand their writing skills and subject-matter expertise.
Who Is Transforming Whom?
This overview of how budget cuts can impact specific programs highlights the interconnected nature of academic programs. If we pull back now to look again at the big picture of how universities are transforming in the new, interconnected, and community-oriented world we live in, we might ask the question, “Who gets to define the changes in universities?” Looking at the WVU criteria, we see that “one-size-fits-all” criteria were applied: enrollments and research dollars. These are important because universities have to exist in a social and economic context, and these criteria are easy to manage. The problem with them is that they are rolled out as “conversations” when they actually are not. They are mandates and the conversations around them are phony.
Another problem is that they ignore the kind of bottom-up, intellectual and scholarly transformations that represent faculty and research trends. One such trend that I explored recently is the movement toward transformative learning, global learning, and indigenization that has and is gaining momentum in north American universities. In an article for the Journal of Transformative Learning, I reported on a study of these trends that was able to conclude that, “Together, these three dominant currents interact at the level of ontology as witnesses to us about how institutions of higher education are, for the most part, charting future core elements of learning.”
In technical communication, a related current is the social justice turn in technical and professional communication. An article by Agboka and Dorpenyo looks at 231 tech comm programs and describes the “burgeoning scholarship on social justice” at work. While more needs to be done, this important transformative element is something that can easily be lost in counts of enrollments and research dollars.
Looking to the Future
As I look up from my keyboard, after reflecting on budget cuts, shifts in the social and political landscape, and the impacts on technical communication programs, I am confronted with the pleasant reality of blue skies and fresh ideas. But I am also prompted to ask, “Who is really transforming higher education? The legislators, who want to transform universities by eliminating low-enrollment programs? Or the faculty, who are transforming universities through innovative teaching and research?”
If I had one recommendation to make in this whole interesting process, it would be this: Let the conversation about transformation be broadened to include all the ways that faculty, staff, students, and community partners work together to look to the future of universities.
Agboka, Godwin, and Isidore Dorpenyo. “Curricular efforts in technical communication after the social justice turn.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 36, no.1 (2022): 38–70.
Barker, Thomas. “Moving toward the centre: Transformative learning, global learning, and indigenization.” Journal of Transformative Learning 7, no. 1 (2020): 8-22.
A special thank you to Laura Beard for pointing me to many of the resources I used in the writing of this piece.
Thomas Barker is Professor of Communication in the Graduate Program in Communication and Technology in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. His research focuses on communication issues in public health, risk communication, and higher education. He has published in software documentation, risk communication, and higher education.