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According to Inside Higher Ed, Iowa Wesleyan College is cutting 22 of its 52 faculty positions and 16 of its 31 academic programs, saving the school $3 million per year out of its $20 million budget. After the cuts, there will be two faculty members in the English department, and none in math.

The college president says that he’s positioning the institution for growth. Only 52 students were enrolled in the 16 programs that were cut.

Naturally, people are distraught, but I’m not inclined to criticize the radical pruning. This is a college with real enrollment challenges: It has fewer than 800 students. It lacks name recognition. Only about 16 percent of admitted students actually enroll. Iowa Wesleyan is a school that’s been on a downhill path, and the president and board have decided to make changes before it’s too late.

I’m sure that people are asking, “How do you have a college with zero math teachers?” Since the school had already eliminated its major in mathematics, I’m guessing that the administration is going to (1) hire adjuncts to teach on campus, (2) hire adjuncts to teach online, or (3) have students enroll in online math courses offered by other institutions, and then transfer the credits. The same options will probably be used in other departments.

Dozens of theological schools are facing similar crises, and some of them are taking bold steps to address enrollment challenges. Some are merging; a few are even closing.

Since the rise of the university in the Middle Ages, the platonic ideal of higher education has been a faculty around which gather a community of students. In this model, administrators are hired hands who take care of pesky details like scheduling and building maintenance. Today’s board of trustees arose from medieval antecedents as well -- monks and other church leaders who offered oversight to the community of scholars, and who usually paid the bills as well.

The model has already shifted. Today, the chief decision maker is the president, and the president’s charge is to fulfill the institution’s mission with financial vitality. That means that clarity of mission is of first-order importance.

Student learning is usually at the center of the mission, and faculty members are the people who enable this learning. Board members are often hand-picked to support the mission, both with their own money and by connecting the president with influential friends.

But can the mission remain central in this era of tight budgets? It’s a huge challenge. In smaller, weaker schools -- those that struggle to attract students, those that have little endowment to fall back on – there’s always pressure to follow the money.

Presidents, trustees, and other people who care about theological education are working extraordinarily hard to achieve financial stability at many schools, and I have nothing but respect for their task. But even as this happens, it’s helpful if there is total clarity about what the mission is.

I know nothing about whether the changes at Iowa Wesleyan College are helping them achieve their mission, but I sympathize with the challenge. I’d like to hear more about how theological schools and seminaries are making tough choices for the greater good. There are no easy answers, but there are many possibilities.

Read the Inside Higher Ed article here.


Photo by Michael Miller

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