Bridgewater College’s alumni, students and faculty rush to defend programs from cuts

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Many Bridgewater College alumni, students and faculty were surprised by the announcement this month that the college would eliminate several student organizations and some academic programs and are mobilizing to try to save some of them.

The college’s decisions to move forward would mean laying off faculty — even as the college said the year-long strategic resource allocation process was transparent and included campus-wide input. 

The move is part of broader changes for higher learning institutions and, to some, signals an erosion of shared decision-making between faculty and administrations as universities and colleges make decisions amid a pandemic that has disrupted campus and classroom operations. The college reports having about 1,600 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled this fall, down from 1,746 in 2019 and a high of 1,883 in 2017.  

Alumni and students have been rallying around the faculty to save the affected programs — mostly in the humanities — and to save student organizations that are on the chopping block. Websites started by alumni, and petitions, such as one to withhold donations from Bridgewater College and another to save the equestrian program, have circulated on social media. Their hope is that Bridgewater’s Board of Trustees might vote down the proposed plan at its meeting on Nov. 6.

As part of the strategic resource allocation process, the college’s leaders recommended to the trustees the elimination of six majors in applied chemistry, French, mathematics, nutritional science, philosophy & religion, and physics. They have also recommended the phase out of five minors, 32 academic tracks and concentrations, and student organizations including the Bridgewater Equestrian, men’s golf team and the dance team. 

The college is not in any financial trouble, according to Abbie Parkhurst, Bridgewater’s associate vice president of marketing and communications. Parkhurst said the college had to take a harder look at how to best use its resources.

Marshall Miller, a Bridgewater College alumnus and former student body president, said the shared governance between faculty who create curriculum and the administration is being threatened and will have negative implications for the college’s long-term health.

“When they discontinue certain programs, they are also allowed to sever tenured contracts with employees who are in these programs, and that action is only something that is allowed to happen in circumstances of great financial crisis,” Miller said.

One professor at the college, speaking to The Citizen on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and jobs at stake, said faculty have not received answers about why even programs that generate revenue are being cut.

Parkhurst said the process began before COVID-19 shut down many in-person classes around the country and affected the global economy. But she said because of the circumstances, the college’s leaders wanted to reallocate resources in a strategic and proactive way now. 

“Like most colleges and universities in the country, we’re not in a position to be all things to all people at all times,” Parkhurst said. “Higher ed. is historically very good at adding and adding, but not very good at ever taking away. We are in a position where we can’t raise tuition fast enough and we can’t raise enrollment fast enough to be able to benefit the programs that we want to grow and add.”

The site is among several online efforts to try to save majors and programs from planned cuts.

The balance of shared governance

Miller said he is concerned about how the faculty are being treated and the direction the college is taking without the participation of all the university’s faculty and staff.

“The administration of Bridgewater College is making a top down decision about how to allocate resources and how to discontinue academic programs that fundamentally goes against the model of shared governance,” Miller said. 

Professors across the state have been concerned about the erosion of shared governance during the era of COVID. Shared governance in higher education is the process by which various constituents (traditionally governing boards, senior administration, and faculty; possibly also staff, students, or others) contribute to decision making related to college or university policy and procedure. 

Many professors nationwide have expressed concerns that as COVID tightens budgets and threatens the financial health of higher education institutions, their involvement in decision making processes will disintegrate.  

Radford University’s Board of Visitors received backlash over the decision in June to give the school’s president unilateral budget cutting powers. This summer, as colleges made decisions about having students return to campus, professors at JMU collected more than 1,300 signatures on a petition asking colleges and universities for faculty input in decisions made regarding COVID-related health and safety decisions.

For Bridgewater, faculty and alumni are concerned this erosion means that administration officials are make sweeping cuts to programs without proper faculty input. 

“Faculty also have significant concerns that faculty participation in the process was used to justify cuts with faculty approval, when that is not the case. Faculty have recently passed a document hoping to curtail the power of the president to eliminate programs and tenure track faculty since purview over academic programs falls to the faculty, but there is little anticipation that this will actually change anything,” said the Bridgewater professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

That professor also said faculty on the task force that ranked programs in a report to the president have expressed dismay at the widespread cuts.

Parkhurst pushed back on the notion that faculty were not involved in the year-long process. She said the university formed two task forces: one to look at academics and one to look at administrative functions. She said both task forces included faculty and staff nominated by their peers.  In addition, the leaders asked each academic director of every program to fill out a template answering questions about the programs. 

“Every program on campus had the opportunity to speak for itself in this process,” Parkhurst said.  “And to fill out these templates, and to talk about what they bring to the college, and to talk about what they could do with more resources, and what they could do with less.” 

Serving the whole person

As part of its mission statement, Bridgewater College aims to “educate the whole person and recognize that the fullness of the human spirit requires an understanding of and commitment to passion, creativity, and imagination that give the world substance, vitality and depth.”

“I thought the recommendations were counter to the long-term goals of the institution and they undermined the values of Bridgewater, especially in their liberal arts mission, which is to educate the whole person,” Miller said. 

The idea of educating the “whole person” is one adopted by many liberal arts colleges. It refers to an idea that students, while choosing a major to educate them for a career, also take classes from other areas of academia to better educate them in all aspects of life. 

Parkhurst said the college is staying true to those values, adding that even though courses of study have been recommended for phase-out, Bridgewater will still be offer courses in those subjects. 

“For example, philosophy and religion, which is one you have probably heard about, yes, we will be phasing out that major, we will be keeping some of the faculty members, and we will continue to offer a minor,” Parkhurst said. “Students will still be getting the full breadth of the liberal arts.” 

Parkhurst also pointed to low student enrollement in the programs being phased out. 

“These majors identified for phase-out collectively represent only 4.1% of all students declaring any major at the College over the last five years,” Parkhurst said. “Academic majors determined by the board to be discontinued will include a teach-out phase. In other words, no current student will be left without a pathway to a degree in their current area of study.”

Meanwhile, students in organizations who have been put on the chopping block are also organizing. The equestrian activities, which many students said was a selling point for them to come to Bridgewater in the first place, are feeling heartbroken, said  Mary Monaco, a senior president of Bridgewater College Equestrian. 

Monaco has been part of the program since freshman year and has donated a horse to the program. She said students were taken aback by the news that the club would be phased out. The club, which includes 65 students, competes in various programs. 

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it felt a little bit like a betrayal from the college,” Monaco said. 

Miller said alumni feel the only way to get the administration’s attention is to withhold donations if the Board of Trustees approves the administration’s plan. 

“We just want to make sure that the board hears us, and the board hears the faculty,” Miller said. “The only way for the administration to hear our concerns is to have a petition with some teeth in it, where we threaten to withhold money from them in the future.” 

Miller said he has heard from professors who feel betrayed and powerless and “are hurting.”

Parkhurst said the college empathizes with them and are trying to support those who might lose their jobs. 

“This is a terribly hard process. We all knew that from the beginning, it is what we feel is best for the institution, but that makes it hard,” Parkhurst said. “We’ve got colleagues and friends who are going to be losing their jobs, and that is really a hard thing, especially during a pandemic. That is understandable that people are upset. We are trying our best to support those people.” 

— Additional reporting by Andrew Jenner.

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