Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Decision Rules Used in Academic Program Closure: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Decision Rules Used in Academic Program Closure: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Article excerpt

The "economic fundamentals" for many American colleges and universities have changed, creating a new playing field with a different set of fiscal rules (Breneman, 1997; Massey, 1994). States are allocating less money, federal research dollars are drying up, and the tuition-paying public is adverse to large tuition increases, all while higher education costs are increasing (Breneman, 1993; Hovey, 1999; O'Keefe, 1987). At the same time, those paying public higher education's bills-- taxpayers, state legislatures, and tuition-paying students and their families--are demanding high quality and more from their investments, and they are increasing their scrutiny (Harvey & Immerwahr, 1995; Haworth & Conrad, 1997). The demands of the increasingly influential market to do new things and to set different priorities are difficult to meet without the extra cushion of uncommitted resources that was available in the past (Levine, 1997). Many suggest that higher education's programs are too costly and out of date and that in stitutions cannot continue to offer such expansive ranges of programs.

As intentional strategies, more and more institutions are adjusting academic priorities and, in many cases, closing academic programs. Recent high profile closures occurred at the University of Chicago, St. Olaf College, and Auburn University. Program discontinuance is a "necessary adaptive mechanism" (Dougherty, 1979, p. 1) in organizations that are constrained in the range of ways they can increase or reallocate their fiscal resources, such as universities, hospitals and government agencies (Behn, 1988; Hardy, 1987; Pettigrew, Ferlie, & McKee, 1992). Eliminating select programs may help ensure organizational health.

Program discontinuance is a difficult decision to make in higher education, because the changes can be emotionally charged (Dill & Sporn, 1995), faculty can lose their jobs and have their life's work interrupted (American Association of University Professors, 1995), and the cuts have the potential to threaten institutions' core values and alter institutional identities (Dougherty, 1979; Meichiori, 1982). Unlike other types of decisions in higher education, such as a new curriculum or a revised endowment investment plan, program closures send "shock waves through the university community" (Hardy, 1990, p. 317). They create inner turmoil and stress among those involved and affected by the outcomes (Gumport, 1993), and draw the attention (and passions) of administrators, faculty, and trustees (Dougherty, 1979; Melchiori, 1982).

When institutions have to make tough choices, prioritize among departments, and close academic programs, by what criteria do they make this decision? What characteristics are considered when institutions must decide which programs to keep and which to close? The purpose of this study is to understand the criteria used by institutional leaders to identify academic programs for termination. The study adopts a dual framework from limited rational choice theory to understand this decision process.

Conceptual Framework: Program Discontinuance and Decision Rules

The most common portrayal of organizational decision making is one of limited rational choice, where decision makers identify alternatives, explore consequences, and make choices based upon a set of decision rules that differentiate consequences (March, 1994; Pennings, 1986; Pfeffer, 1982). Decisions are made in order to act and to bring about desirable results. This is a logic of consequence (March, 1997). Limited rational choice suggests that there is a relationship between information, criteria, and decision outcomes, and it has been shown to be used in retrenchment decisions (Ashar & Shapiro, 1990). The key questions from this decision-making framework are: What acceptable actions are possible? What future consequences might follow each alternative? How valuable are the various consequences? …

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