RIC president says endangered majors will get faculty review

Updated at 1:01 p.m.

JACK WARNER, the interim president at Rhode Island College, previously said he had eliminated seven majors from the college. He is now saying that his action was a proposal for possible elimination. /PBN PHOTO/MIKE SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – After a campus backlash to plans to remove seven underutilized majors from Rhode Island College, interim President Jack Warner now says faculty committees will get to weigh in before any are eliminated.

Warner originally told Providence Business News on Nov. 4 that five undergraduate and two graduate majors, along with 21 concentrations or certificate programs, had been eliminated due to low enrollment. 

The PBN story, which ran on Nov. 9, sent shockwaves through RIC, with faculty dismayed to learn about the decision through the news media, rather than from the president. Some faculty members who spoke to PBN also said they were upset because Warner did not follow the standard process to remove degree programs.

In the wake of this reaction, PBN obtained an email Warner sent to the entire faculty on Nov. 10 in which he said the programs “have been identified for elimination” and “final decisions have not yet been made.” Warner assured faculty he would follow the proper procedure, which involves notifying department chairs and program directors, who in turn submit a list of agreed-upon eliminations to elected panels of faculty members for review.

- Advertisement -

Warner in an emailed statement to PBN on Tuesday afternoon said his shift in phrasing on the handling of the majors was a result of him initially “presenting an oversimplified picture of a complex series of processes and decisions.” While Warner stressed that his proposals will now be vetted by the respective undergraduate or graduate faculty groups, he also said “the ultimate decision-making authority remains with the president.”

Erik Christiansen, a history professor and the president of RIC’s faculty union, said Warner’s original statements “caused a lot of unnecessary concern and confusion” among faculty and that the miscommunication was “unsettling.”

“I am concerned that there’s a disconnect between what our interim president tells the faculty and what he tells the Postsecondary Council and others outside of RIC,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen also said he was concerned that Warner might feel “pressured to identify big and immediate cuts” without a thorough evaluation by RIC faculty and administration.

The college’s bylaws charge two panels of elected faculty members – one undergraduate and one graduate – with reviewing and voting on curriculum changes, including removing any majors or concentrations. These recommendations are then sent to the provost/vice president, then the college president, for final approval.

Susan Abbotson, an English professor and chairperson of the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, said it is rare for the committee to reject a proposal to eliminate a major or concentration. In her recollection, it had only happened once in the 12 years she had served as council chairperson.

Abbotson also described Warner’s actions as “unprecedented.” Faculty members, not the president, are the ones who historically have proposed getting rid of majors or degree programs, making their case to the department chair and dean before submitting an agreed-upon proposal to the undergraduate or graduate committee, according to Abbotson.

Abbotson, however, doesn’t blame Warner for his swift – and potentially confusing – statements around removing programs. 

He definitely has the college’s best interests at heart,” Abbotson said. “He’s just maybe struggling with the processes at the college.”

She added that a program review was “long overdue,” and that faculty could be resistant to change. However, she also stressed the importance of the established – albeit slow – review process to ensure faculty and administrators can share feedback.

“It’s a two-way problem, with difficulties on both sides,” Abbotson said.

The confusion comes just over four months after Warner took over as interim president, tasked with helping the college overcome enrollment declines and budget deficits which grew worse during the pandemic. Warner previously said that the majors and concentrations chosen for potential elimination were picked because five or fewer students graduated from them for each of the last five years. Another 17 majors (seven undergraduate and 10 graduate) and 28 concentrations were being monitored for potential elimination in the future due to similarly low enrollment.

Warner in his email to faculty said the list of majors and concentrations being proposed for elimination would be sent to the faculty committees by the end of the calendar year.

(SUBS fifth paragraph with statement from Warner.)

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com

No posts to display