Featured photo: Students protest the academic review process on Nov. 16 on campus. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
View the rubric that grades all of the programs at UNCG here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that rpk Consulting contracted directly with Emporia State University. That is incorrect. In fact, the Kansas Board of Regents contracted with rpk to complete an academic portfolio and workload reviews for six universities including Emporia State University. Preliminary findings from those reviews matched Emporia State’s own extensive review, which led to campus-wide restructuring.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the rubric put out by UNCG was created by rpk Consulting group. In emails to TCB, both rpk and UNCG administration said that the rubric was created by UNCG after “rpk worked with existing University data to develop a methodology for the Cost & Revenue Analysis and the University conducted the analysis of that information,” according to Interim Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications Kimberly Osborne.
New reporting by Triad City Beat delves into UNCG’s relationship with a consulting firm that the university’s administration has contracted to implement an academic program review process that faculty and students say is unprecedented and unnecessary.
Additional reporting delves into the effects that consulting firms like rpk Group, which is working with UNCG, have had on other universities that have faced similar academic cuts.
“They’ve said this is best practice,” UNCG Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Jeremy Rinker said. “But it is not best practice.”
In interviews with faculty from other universities, professors mentioned how aggressive tactics like the ones being employed at UNCG have ultimately changed the fabric of their institutions and, in some cases, created drastic enrollment drops. Current and former faculty noted how the consulting groups and university administrators began treating the schools like businesses run for profits, rather than educational institutions concerned with the public good.
“It still feels like a bad nightmare to all of us,” said Ela Celikbas, an assistant professor of mathematics at West Virginia University. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, Did they really do this? Did they really cancel our math graduate program?”
Now, UNCG professors and students are fighting back to ensure they don’t meet the same fate as West Virginia University and Emporia State University in Kansas.
“We know that rpk is flawed,” said UNCG museum history graduate student Azariah Journey. “They destroyed WVU; they destroyed Emporia. They have a history of looking at departments as businesses instead of the incredible students that are in them.”
Why is this happening?
For the last several months, UNCG’s administration, which is helmed by Chancellor Frank Gilliam Jr., has been engaging in an academic portfolio review process which formally began late last year, according to the university.
The reasons for the changes that the administration has given include falling enrollment numbers and the state’s new funding model for universities, which looks at four-year graduation rates, first-time student debt at graduation and expenses per degree rather than enrollment numbers.
The university administration also noted a concern about a future in which fewer high school graduates seek college degrees because of falling birth rates, rising tuition and the economic impact of the pandemic.
But an independent report by Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University who was hired by UNCG’s branch of the American Association of University Professors, showed that the university is actually in “solid financial condition” and that the academic program cuts are unnecessary.
Instead, Bunsis pointed to the six-figure salaries of administrators like Gilliam and the fact that the university spends a lot of its budget on athletics.
In a response published in the News & Record on Oct. 20, Gilliam pushed back against Bunsis’ report, stating that it “misrepresents the facts.” To Bunsis’ claim that the university should pay administrators like himself less, Gilliam stated that “since July of 2019, the number of senior administrators has decreased by 17 percent while the number of permanent faculty has declined by just 1.7 percent.”
In his report, Bunsis noted that salaries for instructional staff increased 5.9 percent from 2017-22, but in the same time period, salaries and benefits for institutional support, otherwise known as administration, went up 51.5 percent.
In response, students, faculty and staff have protested on campus numerous times in the last few months and have started a petition calling for the discontinuation of the program review process, which has garnered thousands of signatures.
According to Mike DeCesare, the senior program officer in the national American Association of University Professors’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, this pattern of academic program review and budget cuts is not specific to UNCG.
“Unfortunately, it’s become a very familiar story,” he said. “It’s become alarmingly common.”
In 2021, the AAUP published an omnibus report analyzing eight different institutions that carried out a similar program to the one UNCG is deploying. Many of the institutions had suffered financial distress from the pandemic, which resulted in the slashing of programs and the elimination of tenured faculty.
“It’s hard to see the outlook as anything [other] than rather bleak, especially if administrations are going to insist on making decisions without meaningful faculty input, especially with regards to budget matters and discontinuance of academic programs,” DeCesare said.
How are the programs at UNCG being graded?
As part of the review process, each program at UNCG was assigned a numerical value to determine whether or not the program meets the university’s expectations or not.
The extensive rubric, which has been published publicly for the first time by TCB, measures aspects of departments including, but not limited to: a count of full-time employees, department expenses, student enrollment, revenue, grants awarded and graduation rates.
The data looks at numbers from 2020-23, which Elliott said is flawed from the start.
(Note: In the contract between UNCG and rpk, the consulting group notes that they would look at data for 2019-22, but the rubric shows data for 2020-23.)
“They’ve only collected info for three years,” Elliott said. “And something happened in 2020. There was a pandemic that caused all of our classes to go online; UNCG had a big enrollment decline. We’re leveling off now, but it seems like a chaotic and anomalous three years to look at. We would rather look at 10 years of data.”
According to the rubric, the category that weighs the most in terms of final score is the first, which measures the number of full-time employees in each program as well as the program’s expenses and revenue. That category is weighted at 39 percent of the final score for undergraduate programs and 41 percent for graduate programs.
In total, each program is scored with a number between 1 and 4, with lower scores being preferable, as seen in the “Program Review Summary New” tab of the rubric. According to the ratings, 1 “exceeds expectations, 2 “meets expectations,” 3 is “approaching expectations,” and 4 means the program “needs examination.”
Of the 164 programs listed in the rubric, 102 programs — or 62.2 percent — scored within the “meets expectations” range. None scored as exceeding expectations.
Of the 164 programs, 61 — or 37.2 percent — scored as “approaching expectations,” with the lowest scoring departments including the master’s dance program, bachelor’s programs in physics, the bachelor’s program in African-American and African diaspora studies and the bachelor’s in religious studies program. Just one program, the masters program in health management, scored in the “needs examination” category.
When asked about the numbers on the rubric, Tami Draves, faculty senate chair for the university, stated that “there are no programs that are currently on any sort of list to be cut.”
According to both the university and rpk Consulting group, rpk did not create the rubric but instead, “worked with existing University data to develop a methodology for the Cost & Revenue Analysis and the University conducted the analysis of that information,” according to Interim Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications Kimberly Osborne.
Instead, Draves stated that the numerical values shown on the rubric will be considered with qualitative data that could move programs that are not meeting expectations into a category of meeting expectations.
So what’s the qualitative data?
According to Draves, programs that have been deemed as “approaching expectations” are required to submit a 1,000-word context statement in which they argue for the continuation of their programs.
“They are given the opportunity to explain why the metrics look the way they do or perhaps more importantly, explain things that can’t be captured with numbers,” Draves said.
But the issue lies with how the numbers were calculated in the first place, Rinker said.
“It’s not best practice to compare apples to oranges,” Rinker said. “Comparing kinesiology to peace and conflict studies or you know, sociology to history. That’s not the way you do it around the country. If you look at the way academic review processes work, you review like programs to like programs. So if you’re reviewing peace and conflict studies, you would look at other peer institutions that are providing that same curriculum, and you would measure us against them.”
Another issue that faculty have pointed out in terms of the rubric is the number of times the data has changed within it.
“The rubrics were originally supposed to come out in September,” said Mark Elliott, an associate head of the History Department and president of UNCG’s Association of University Professors chapter. “But it came out on Oct. 6, a day after the Howard Bunsis report, and it was constantly being updated and revised.”
A quick check on the university website shows that the rubric was updated and released three separate times, on Oct. 6, 9 and 23. Even still, Elliott said there are errors in the data.
“They corrected some of the errors, but some of the errors they did not correct,” he said. “There are a number of departments where the expenses are wrong.”
One such department is the university’s math department, according to Talia Fernós, an associate professor within the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
“The data has been so flawed,” they said.
One of the programs that is at risk within Fernós’ department is the bachelors of arts in mathematics which Fernós said is a “softer” math program than the “harder” bachelors of science.
“So running it is essentially free,” said Fernos, who has been at UNCG since 2012.
But that’s not reflected in the rubric.
According to the rubic data, the BA scores at 2.35, meaning it falls within the “approaching expectations” category, compared to the BS which scored a 2.51 and thus “meets expectations.”
Additionally, Fernós pointed out that their department gets blamed by administration for low graduation rates because students are required to pass a math class to get their degree. But with a high percentage of students who come from educational backgrounds in which math isn’t their strongest subject, it can be difficult to get certain students up to speed. Part of that is because about half of UNCG’s population attends the university on Pell grants, a federal need-based grant for low-income students. The university is also the state’s No. 1 institution for total percentage of Hispanic/Latino student enrollment, with 15 percent of the student body made up of that population. According to university statistics, about half of the student population is first-generation and 53 percent is made up of students of color.
“They’re basically penalizing the university for graduation rates,” Fernós said. “And I would say that every hour of education, and I mean a literal hour in class, is worth it for the society that we live in.”
Besides the way that the programs are being graded in the rubric, faculty members argue that the way the program review process was started in the first place is unprecedented and goes against standard procedure.
Going against standard procedure?
According to AAUP’s DeCesare, there are three reasons why a university may engage in academic program review: adequate cause, bonafide financial exigency or by faculty will. DeCesare, as well as UNCG faculty members, argue that none of the three conditions have been met for the university to engage in the current process.
“Oftentimes there’s this mishmash of supposed financial trouble and the need to eliminate programs,” DeCesare said. “Our standards keep those two situations separate. As far as financial difficulty, those are not legitimate bases for dismissing faculty members. What we require is a bonafide financial exigency which fundamentally compromises the academic integrity of the institution as a whole.”
Adequate cause is the most broad of the reasons, but DeCesare explains that it’s if a faculty member is found to be essentially incompetent to fulfill their role.
But that’s not what is happening at UNCG or other institutions that have faced these kinds of processes, DeCesare said.
The other big point that seems he said to be missing from several institutions’ processes is the inclusion of faculty from the very beginning of the process.
“Under AAUP standards, faculty should be intimately involved with the budget,” he said. “Especially when it comes to declaring financial exigency. Right from the very start, faculty should be involved meaningfully in that process under our standards.”
UNCG’s own protocol when it comes to the creation and dissolution of academic departments notes that the chancellor is authorized to do so but proposals for such action are normally “initiated by the faculty of a College or a School and are forwarded to the Chancellor through regular academic channels.”
UNCG’s guidelines also includes the following: “The Colleges and Schools are organized under instruments of governance adopted by the faculty of the unit under the leadership of deans and approved by the Chancellor after consultation with the Faculty Senate. Any modifications to such an instrument must be approved by the unit faculty and the Chancellor after consultation with the Faculty Senate.”
In addition to the AAUP, Inside Higher Ed, a media company focused on reporting on higher education also outlines standards for academic review including the inclusion of faculty from the beginning of the process.
“Although academic leaders often shoulder the responsibility for establishing the goals and objectives of a portfolio review, it’s critical to engage faculty, staff, and program administrators from the start and to establish a shared understanding of the portfolio review’s purpose, scope, and outcomes,” Inside Higher Ed’s guide states.
Additionally, AAUP’s standards make note of an appeals process that has to be clear and outlined for faculty in the case of program elimination, and that the “burden of proof” for discontinuation rests on administration.
But that hasn’t happened, UNCG professors say. In fact, when asked when the process for academic review started, different faculty members cite different starting dates.
Some point to some time in 2022 while others say they realized something was happening at the beginning of the fall semester.
Despite the confusion among faculty, the administration has continued its efforts to move the academic program review process forward. As listed on its website, the next step includes each department’s faculty committee reviewing programs with their deans and then making recommendations to the provost. This includes recommendations to cut certain programs.
Elliott, who is on the faculty committee for the College of Arts and Sciences says that it puts him and other faculty in a tight spot.
“It’s a real dilemma,” Elliott said. “We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t because if we refuse to do it, we have no say. But the choice we’re given is not whether or not to eliminate a program, it’s to choose which ones we’re going to recommend to eliminate.”
And given the data, which faculty say is flawed, Elliott takes issue with that.
“Can we in good conscience, based on the info we’re given, recommend to eliminate any programs?” he asked.
Deans are to make final recommendations to the provost by Jan. 14, 2024. Then, throughout January, recommended programs to be cut will be shared with the university community, according to the schedule. By Feb. 1, the chancellor will make final decisions; after that, students will no longer be accepted into cut programs.
The university has stated that the cuts will take three to five years to implement and that students already enrolled in the programs that have been cut will be allowed to graduate with their chosen major.
But looking at other schools that have undergone similar processes like the one taking place at UNCG, that may be easier said than done.
Rpk’s impact on UNCG and other schools
In May, the administration at West Virginia University entered into a contract with rpk Consulting, which is based in Maryland.
By the end of October, the university had eliminated 28 different undergraduate and graduate programs — half of them in the humanities — and cut 143 full-time faculty positions.
And Ela Celikbas, an assistant professor of mathematics at the school, watched it happen.
One of the programs that was cut was the graduate mathematics program.
“They decided to cut the only PhD program in math in West Virginia,” Celikbas said.
The university, which was founded in 1867, is the state’s flagship public university and had 27,367 students enrolled in fall 2022.
In Celikbas’ department, 16 positions were eliminated. Six of the people entered into voluntary retirement, four faculty members left for other positions elsewhere and six positions were involuntarily cut.
And yet, Celikbas said that the administration wants to create a new graduate program.
“I asked them why they couldn’t keep the existing program and change it,” she said. “They had no answer.”
Now, even the undergraduate math program at WVU is running with limited courses and all of the remaining faculty, herself included, have taken on an increased workload.
“The sad part is that we have to start all over from scratch,” Celikbas said. “I don’t know if we will be able to recover everything that we lost.”
According to an FAQ posted by administration at WVU, the school hired rpk Group in April with a contract that runs through the end of December. The total amount quoted by rpk on the contract was $875,000.
After making several public records requests and emails to UNCG administration, TCB received a copy of the contract between UNCG and rpk.
According to the contract, UNCG is paying rpk $400,000 for its services which began in January after the contract was signed and ended on Oct. 31.
Kimberly Osborne, the interim vice chancellor for strategic communications at UNCG, clarified that the university is using $200,000 in trust funds and $200,000 from the UNC system for the contract.
As of Nov. 29. Osborne noted that the university has spent $395,368.25 total.
A subsequent public records request to the UNC System Offices showed that on Dec. 8, 2022, the President’s Office within the UNC System signed off on $200,000 to UNCG “to help support an institutional efficiency and productivity study.”
And UNCG and West Virginia aren’t rpk’s only clients.
On their website, rpk lists more than 75 clients, more than half of them educational institutions.
Their website also explains how they work with their clients within higher education with an “emphasis on maximizing mission, market and margin.” Another portion of their website outlines the company’s approach to academic program review.
DeCesare with AAUP, said that this kind of relationship between higher education institutions and consulting firms like rpk is becoming commonplace.
“The use of consultants seems to have become the norm,” DeCesare said. “It calls into question just how dire the financial situation is when the institution can somehow find the money to hire an outside consulting firm.”
And, at least anecdotally, DeCesare said that the institutions aren’t doing better.
There has been little to no improvement in the financial conditions of these institutions,” he said. “In some instances, there’s been a further decline in the financial situation.”
One such institution is Emporia State University in Kansas.
Max McCoy came to Emporia State in 2006 as a journalist in residence. By 2011, he had gotten tenure and by 2017, he was named a full professor. Cut to six years later and McCoy is not only out of a job at Emporia State, but is part of a federal lawsuit along with 10 other professors against the Kansas Board of Regents for “conspiring to fire tenured and ‘problematic’ professors.”
The problems, as McCoy sees it, began in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic when the Kansas Board of Regents, which acts as the governing body for the public universities in the state, implemented a statewide “workforce management plan” that allowed universities to fire faculty members with just a 30-day notice. Other changes included the modification of academic offerings. Emporia State University was the only institution that implemented the board’s changes.
In September 2022, 33 faculty members at Emporia State were laid off. In April, three faculty members were reinstated to their positions without explanation by the university. McCoy was not among them.
And although the university’s Interim President, Ken Hush, made the decisions because of “extreme financial pressure,” more than a year after the faculty cuts, enrollment at Emporia State has fallen 12.5 percent compared to fall 2022. On the other hand, enrollment at other public institutions within the state rose 2 percent.
Additionally, before Emporia State cut its programs, the Kansas Board of Regents contracted with rpk to conduct an academic portfolio and workload review of six universities including Emporia State. While the university conducted its own additional extensive review of its programs, which led to the final cuts, a blog post on the university’s website stated that the “results of [the] analysis [were] aligned with preliminary findings by RPK.”
Of the 30 faculty members cut at Emporia State, 23 were tenured professors, something that McCoy says didn’t make any sense.
“I asked them to cite one of the reasons why I was being terminated,” he said. “And they said it was one of a laundry list of reasons including realignment. And I asked, ‘How is this not suspending tenure? How is this not improper?’ And the HR director said, ‘No, you still have your tenure.’ And I said, ‘Obviously I don’t if I’m being terminated.”
McCoy, who got his masters at Emporia State, said that it took years for him to get tenure.
“It’s a yearslong process in which you devote a lot of intense activity into proving yourself,” he said.
And that’s why he’s part of the lawsuit, he said.
“Tenure is a property right and due process wasn’t followed in this case,” he said. “There are contractual issues and questions about the ages of those terminated in terms of age discrimination and the question of fairness and constitutionality.”
The lawsuit is ongoing.
As described by the AAUP, tenure is an “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” The purpose of tenure is to “safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education. When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge,” the AAUP’s website states.
But McCoy and others who have been impacted by academic program reviews say that those leading the changes, including consulting firms like rpk, don’t care about academic freedom.
“Rpk has a cookie-cutter approach,” McCoy said. “Their emphasis is on business. But universities are not businesses, and they are not businesses by design. Universities are meant to serve the public good.”
‘We’re not resistant to change’
On Nov. 20, UNCG professors Jeremy Rinker and Ali Askerov were joined by NC State Professor Roy Schwartzman and former Guilford College Religious Studies Professor Max Carter in a classroom on UNCG’s campus.
About three dozen community members sat in seats facing the panelists as they discussed the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. They acknowledged the inhumanity that had been visited upon Palestinian lives at the hands of the Israeli government and called for a ceasefire while giving deep historical context that led to the latest round of conflict. They spoke about their personal experiences visiting the region and relayed the many conversations they had had with people in both countries who had built their lives there.
And while not everyone who entered the room may have agreed with everything the panelists had to say, what was clear was the importance of the conversation and the nuanced discussion that took place thereafter.
As professors in the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at UNCG, Rinker and Askerov aren’t strangers to having difficult conversations in times of crisis. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point of the program.
“You look at the context in which we’re in Ukraine and Gaza and there are students who want to learn about this and need to learn the skills of how to handle conflict,” Rinker said.
And as a tenured faculty member who has been at UNCG since 2016, he shouldn’t be concerned about the future of his program, but he is.
“The first time in a long time, I just glanced at the job market,” Rinker admitted.
On Nov. 16, faculty and graduate students led a protest on UNCG’s campus in which they walked from Jackson Library down College Avenue, passing in front of the Alumni House where members of the UNC Board of Governors had gathered for a meeting.
Chants from the group rang out as students like Emilee Robbins held signs that read, “Stop the cuts” and “Profits over people is a zero sum game.”
Robbins told TCB that she is a fourth-year PhD student within the College of Arts and Humanities. She didn’t wish to disclose which program because she was afraid of retaliation from university administration.
“There are a lot of us who feel like in order to protect our programs and faculty, we can’t give our program name,” she said. “And that’s really unfortunate because we really love our programs. That’s why we’re here.”
Azariah Journey, who helped organize and lead the protest, said that they’re having to consider changing schools if their program is cut.
“I’m in the museum studies program,” they said. “And there aren’t that many museum studies programs around the country. My plan was after I graduated, to look at applying to the PhD program here because it’s amazing. But if they get rid of it, I have to look at different universities.”
And the likelihood that they stay within the UNC system?
“I will not stay in the UNC system because this could happen somewhere else,” Journey said.
Fernós, the math professor, echoed Journey’s concerns.
“I have lost faith in the administration,” they said. “I’m making efforts to leave UNCG so I have spent the last year doing my best to secure a job somewhere else where the administration supports its faculty.”
And if that happens, Fernós said that they’ll leave North Carolina.
“We see that the state system is completely broken,” they said.
And that’s unfortunate, because out of the six or so universities they’ve taught at, they love UNCG the most.
“UNCG students are absolutely the best,” Fernós said. “I love them with all my heart.”
And the students feel the same way.
“I want to stay here because of my professors,” Journey said.
Both students and faculty say that they’re not opposed to changes but that the current process isn’t the way forward.
“I would like for this academic program review process to be halted, if anything so we could come to a better consensus of what they’re even looking for,” Robbins said.
“I think what frustrates faculty is that [Gilliam] says we’re resistant to change,” Rinker said. “We’re not resistant to change. We just want to do change in a thoughtful, meaningful way.”
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