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Running with scissors

In rushing to cut academic programs, the Emory University administration ignored the lessons from the University’s leadership crisis

Emory University will cut three departments, put on hold graduate student admissions in economics and Spanish, end its journalism major, reduce funding to “several [unnamed] centers” and reorganize its Institute of Liberal Arts between the 2013 and 2016 academic years, according to a Friday announcement. Dean of Emory College Robin Forman revealed these changes in an obfuscatory four-page letter he sent to students running empty on explanation but overflowing with cant — the word “aspiration” appears on each page. The abruptness of this drastic and apparently unilateral decision should frighten anyone with an interest or stake in higher education. It is also evident that Forman did not learn from the mistakes of our Board of Visitors.

Forman’s letter is the primary document outlining the process and consequences of the tectonic shifts at his college. The Educational Studies, Physical Education and Visual Arts departments are the three departments that will be cut; as an afterthought, Forman said “We will also be closing the Program in Journalism.” This hasn’t slowed down The Emory Wheel, the student newspaper giving this scandal the coverage it would not receive elsewhere.

Who may lose jobs is a source of dispute. Forman said all tenured professors in these programs will be reassigned to other positions; but staff and non-tenured faculty — who number 42, according to Emory — will see their contracts expire or positions removed. But some faculty have said halting enrollment to the Ph.D. programs in economics and Spanish could encourage professors to migrate elsewhere to work with high-level students, according to The Emory Wheel.

More confusing than how this shift will play out is Forman’s bizarre rationale. His letter addressed financial concerns, but, surprisingly, dismissed them. He mentioned the economic crunch, but said “these are fundamentally academic decisions about the size and scope of our mission.” He did say that money saved from slashing programs will be reinvested to strengthen the college. But that shouldn’t be a sign of fiscal woe: “In fact, it is precisely because we are on the path to resolving our most pressing financial challenges that we have this opportunity to recommit ourselves to this vision,” Forman said. Cutting programs to better achieve “academic eminence” is either a genuine belief in twisted logic, or Forman has turned the rhetorical spin up so high that he cannot even admit the difficulties his own college is facing.

The process behind this upheaval is the most threatening aspect. In his letter, Forman listed several groups that advised him, and then said, “I want to make clear that these decisions were finally made by me.” He claimed to have consulted with faculty, but The Emory Wheel reported that for many this was a surprise. The Emory Wheel also reported that Forman only introduced this plan, in vague terms, to the faculty Wednesday before announcing it the Friday thereafter. This dean did not learn the lesson we gathered from June: that a decision made without buy-in is not only undemocratic and most likely misguided, but will bring unintended consequences and reputational damage.

We do not have a journalism major and can assure students at The Emory Wheel they will gain experience from covering such a scandal as this. But such poorly-made moves in higher education should not only be instructive for journalists. Too often, college officials talk about having to compete with peer institutions; instead, they should learn from each other so our mistakes won’t be repeated.