Interview: Michael Hannan discusses ongoing program review and more

Category:  News
Friday, September 11th, 2020 at 12:41 PM

On Friday, Sept. 4, Edinboro University submitted a second draft to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Board and Governors (BOG) of academic programs that are being considered for moratorium. EU Provost Dr. Michael Hannan explained that an earlier draft had around 85 potential moratorium programs on it, while it’s now been narrowed down to around 50, following extensive review and discussion among the university’s Deans’ Council.  

The first two drafts and ‘moratorium’ 

The initial list, according to Hannan, covered a wide range of the university’s academic programs and related departments. PASSHE uses “program” as a catch-all term; this could mean a full degree, a concentration, or a track. For example, Hannan noted that while they are looking at concentrations within the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, the demand and reputation of the full degree program gives him no reason for it to be completely eliminated. There are, however, some concentrations within it that have low enrollment. 

Hannan explained that all of the programs that reach the final version of this list — to be submitted to the PASSHE BOG by October — are then slated for moratorium.

“What that (moratorium) basically says is that you can't put any new students into a program, but any student who is already in that program, they would continue until they’re done or they change their major,” said Hannan. “Following the state system policy, that program can be brought out of moratorium within a five-year window. When you get to five years, you're asked if you plan to bring it back out, or if you plan to discontinue it. If you discontinue it, then it's sort of officially removed from the offerings of the university.” 

He further explained that while any program can be taken out of moratorium before the five-year window ends, the university usually sees no reason to accelerate that process. There was one recent exception. 

“The art history program had been put on moratorium and then just a few years later we did bring it out of moratorium,” said Hannan. “There was a good argument made for the program [and] for what was perceived to be a reasonable demand for it: the fact that all of the courses in it were already required for all art students anyway. So, we didn't wait for the five years to make that decision.” 

Hannan noted that the extensive process leading to moratorium decisions commonly proves it's unlikely for the program to make a quick turnaround. 

Following that initial list of programs, data-driven analysis was paired with discussions with department chairs, who were given the opportunity to demonstrate why their programs are beneficial to the university’s faculty and students. Hannan said including their discussions has made a difference.  

“We had to come up with a list of programs for possible moratorium, or discontinuation, at the end of July to meet the reporting deadline for the state system. There were about 85 programs — again most of those are concentrations within degrees — that were on that list,” he said. “Since then, all of the deans have met with all of the department chairs...to talk about why their program was on there.” 

Hannan continued: “The chairs obviously provided a lot of, sometimes, additional data, but [also] a lot of qualitative information about the programs which we considered, and the deans took pretty careful notes about what input the chairs provided. We also opened up the opportunity for the department chair, either themselves or working with the faculty in the department, [where] they could also provide a written document that moved forward their argument for saving the program.” 

Hannan said he and the Deans’ Council spent an unknown number of hours going through each department and reviewing their initial reasonings for having each program on the list, looking at each at least twice. They also discussed what the chairs had provided and any alternative decisions to be made. As a result, they have already removed around 30 programs from the initial list. 

Both Hannan and EU’s Vice President for Marketing and Communications Angela Burrows have emphasized the draft status of the list as a reason why it hasn’t yet been made publicly available. Hannan also stated that releasing such a draft may be unsettling to students. 

“I don't want to create unnecessary anxiety for students to say, ‘Oh my gosh, my program is on there,’ when in fact we think we have a way to keep it,” he said. 

Hannan noted at the time of this interview that there was still “fine tuning” to be done before submission to the PASSHE BOG on Friday (Sept. 4). On the following Tuesday (Sept. 8), EU faculty received a copy of the new draft and the previous version to see how it had changed.  

“We've redlined out what's been removed from the list instead of having them guess, ‘was this on there?,’ [and] what has come and gone,” said Hannan. 

He noted there are meetings set up starting this week for the programs remaining on the list with their respective department chairs. “We think that there is a good chance that most of the programs that are still on the list are going to be able to continue,” said Hannan. “We have to have more in depth conversations with the department chairs about how some of those programs may need to be restructured in order to make them more efficient, and then we can get those off the list as well.” 

Hannan also noted he hopes to have a final decision on a list of programs for moratorium in the next two to three weeks. 

The process

“Some measures are very positive for a program and some measures are negative for a program,” he said. “There's not a lot of them that have all positive measures.” 

Hannan broke down two main areas that were looked at during the initial review process. First: student demand for a program. 

“We looked at multiple measures there. We looked at: on average how many new students and newer transfer students came into the program in the last four years? What was the enrollment in fall of ‘18 and fall of ’19? What was the number of students who graduated in the last five years in that program? Measures of that nature to see if students are demonstrating that they have a demand for that program.” 

The second main evaluation was the program’s financial impact on the university.  

“One of the things we looked at is the tuition and fee revenue that the students pay. Does it cover even just the instructional cost of offering the program, or not? Do those programs have to be subsidized by other more heavily enrolled programs?”  

Hannan said through this evaluation, the university found some programs that “lose a lot of money, some programs that lose some money,” while a majority of them “cover their instructional costs but they don't really cover the full cost of offering the programs.” 

He further explained: “While their finances were part of the consideration, there wasn't, other than a few outliers, there wasn't a lot of variation among the programs to say, ‘well, this one really definitely has to go because of the amount of money it loses.’” 

“The other thing is, we realized that some programs are just higher cost to offer than others, and that they're still important, they’re still in-demand by students,” said Hannan. “They're still important as part of the identity of the university. They’re still important because there's a high demand for those graduates, and so in those cases, we need to look at if we can make enough money on other programs to still help subsidize those and continue those.” 

Hannan brought up Edinboro’s nursing program here, stating, “there’s no way around it being a high-cost program” to offer because of the hands-on experience and hours of practice it requires. 

“Students really have a lot of clinical experiences in there, which are many hours a week, and those clinical sessions can only be about 10 students in a clinical session,” said Hannan. “It's very expensive to have a faculty member assigned to just 10 students. We know it’s high cost, but there is a nationwide nursing shortage; it is a program that is high demand, students do want to go into it. It is one that we need, we wanted to continue, which we did.” Hannan added that in keeping the nursing program, the university had to enact a tuition fee to help cover those costs, giving nursing students a roughly 25% higher bill than other students.  

Difficult decisions 

Hannan explained that this process has not been easy for him or the deans, partly because of their discussions with the department chairs who have been working to save their respective programs.

“I think we have a lot of very good chairs, and I think they were very professional in their meetings with the deans,” he said. “From what I've heard from the deans, they realized that there are very difficult decisions to be made.” 

“A university has a whole array of program offerings available to students, and what we don't want to have happen is end up at the end of this process with a whole bunch of holes in that array,” said Hannan. “The university would become, sort of, less of a university because of a reduction in opportunities.” 

Another reason Hannan finds the process difficult? Faculty retrenchment. The now provost started working at the university 32 years ago as an assistant professor in economics. “While we don't know at this point who might specifically be affected, we know somebody is going to be affected, and we know all of these people on a personal level, so that's sort of what makes the decision making very, very difficult.” 

Hannan expressed that it’s also hard to have discussions about ending programs with strong faculty and alumni with successful careers. “We have a lot of really good programs, and we have a lot of really good faculty, and that's the difficult part of going through this.”  

EU’s financial status: Comprehensive Planning Process and PASSHE Integration 

Hannan has a background in economic modeling, forecasting and macroeconomics, all of which come into play with both PASSHE’s current financial review and the Comprehensive Planning Process (CPP), formerly known as the financial stability plan. He says his background hasn’t necessarily changed or shaped how he sees Edinboro’s current financial status, but it has helped him navigate through both review processes. 

“What permeates my thinking when we're looking at these types of analysis is recognizing that in any decision there is going to be a cost associated with it. There's a gain, supposedly, but then you have to trade that off against ‘what type of a cost are you going to encounter?’” said Hannan. “Fortunately, all of the decisions are sort of thought of in that way — sort of an opportunity/cost type perspective.” 

The CPP, which was also due to PASSHE on Sept. 4, contains what was once the financial stability plan that began last fall as part of a five-year process.

The original financial stability plan, according to Hannan, was a look at projections on enrollment and employee size (faculty and non-faculty), retention rate estimations, and other costs. From there, the university looked at whether it was expected to lose money, balance the financial budget, or make money, with the end goal being to, at minimum, balance the budget by the end of the original five-year window.  

“We did have a plan that showed how that could be done with various assumptions put in there,” said Hannan. “After COVID-19 occurred, there were some significant financial hits to every industry around the country, but higher ed was also one of those. I think what the (PASSHE) Chancellor recognized was that each of the schools, or most of them, have some cash reserves from funds that they had made in previous years — and those are there in the event that you have some bad years [and] that you have that cash to keep operations going.”  

Hannan continued: “What he found was that the cumulative reserves that are available to all 14 (PASSHE) schools were going to be running out much more quickly than had been previously anticipated, especially once COVID-19 hit.” 

Hannan said following the initial impacts of the pandemic, the original financial stability plan was reworked to show a two-year budget balance, instead of five, which was a plan the university submitted in June.  

Hannan attributes the new plan to why some of the 14 PASSHE schools are looking at their academic programs to see if there are opportunities for them to “jointly offer programs between universities as a way to do it more efficiently.” He noted that in the monthly meetings of each PASSHE provost, they discuss program reductions to be sure there isn’t an overall elimination of certain disciplines and to make sure access to them is statewide.  

“For instance, what we wouldn't want to have is every program in the western part of the state eliminates their geography program. We want to have geography still available somewhere among those schools, or offered jointly among schools,” explained Hannan. “That's part of why they've been asking for these program reviews. If there is some possibility that programs would be eliminated, we want to look at that before final decisions are made to make sure that students still have access to a broad array of options.” 

Hannan said there is still a lot of work to be done with the other financial analysis before the October report deadline. He hopes that by the end of September there will be more information on how the integration process will proceed, if PASSHE finds it necessary, and if a plan is agreed upon. He said this review is being done to show if integration will be financially beneficial or if it would be a financial detriment to either involved university. The PASSHE BOG will meet in October to decide whether the discussion for integration is to continue, or if they plan to find another path for financial stability within the state system. 

For Hannan, it’s uncertain whether or not Edinboro and Slippery Rock will integrate and what integration actually means until that October meeting. “If it appears to be beneficial, then we need to dig a lot deeper between October and April and work very closely between the schools to see how this could be organized to actually meet those projections,” he said.  

Hannan said any department crossovers will be discussed after that October meeting. He meets weekly with the Slippery Rock provost, the deans at each school have had communication, and some of the department faculty have reached out to their counterparts to “get a better understanding about what the offerings and the culture is at our university versus their university, and to think about some initial opportunities that might be possible between us.” Hannan said the next meeting will be about what academic integration looks like and will give him and the Slippery Rock provost a better idea of what the department to department conversations will need to be.  

Kimberly Firestine is the Executive Editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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