VCU’s academic repositioning initiative explained

Illustration by Killian Goodale-Porter.

Jack Glagola, News Editor

The university convened a task force in May 2023 to make VCU more academically attractive and efficient, according to its website. The initiative, overseen by the provost’s office, will “recommend an academic structure that ensures an academically exciting and leaner university,” guided by “trust and transparency.”

Members of the task force — which consisted mostly of faculty — reviewed and discussed proposals over the summer and into the fall before placing them into three recommendation levels, according to VCU’s task force website. The proposals were compiled into final reports and shared with the public in early December.

The provost’s office held conversations with each academic unit and will decide in March which recommendations to implement — the tentative date set is Fall 2025, according to VCU’s website.

K.C. Ogbonna, dean of the School of Pharmacy and a co-chair of the repositioning task force, said the co-chairs examined the process in phases — the overall purpose, information gathering and forming the reports with faculty and staff.

“I think that was fairly unique about our process and I think it’s served us incredibly well,” Ogbonna said.

Ogbonna said the provost asked him and a colleague at the School of Business to chair the task force and steering committee, composed of the deans of each school at the university.

“I was happy to take part, I was excited about the opportunity to not just think about who we are today — but what we could be well into the future,” Ogbonna said.

Ogbonna said the co-chairs looked at the greater academic environment to inform their process.

“What are the things we offer, what are the things that other institutions offer and would that be best served, particularly in a public, state institution in the Commonwealth for our students?” Ogbonna said.

The provost’s review and the unit-level conversations are the next part of the effort, Ogbonna said.

“Having a broader community conversation about the recommendations  and allowing folks to either affirm or be detractors of those recommendations in the process so we can truly say that this was a lot of community buy-in, and there aren’t any unanticipated or unexpected outcomes,” Ogbonna said.

Ogbonna said students will eventually be involved in the conversation.

“It’s hard to create something and not have that input or perspective,” Ogbonna said. “I know the provost is actively putting those pieces and parts in place.”

For now, though, the conversation is focused on academic offerings and operations as well as student experiences and success, according to Ogbonna.

The task force website encourages the VCU community to review the recommendations and submit feedback on them, in addition to the “unit-level conversations” currently underway.

“VCU is quite serious about being nimble enough to meet the needs of the workforce, but also thinking critically about the value of higher education and making sure that the student experience is front of mind as well as their placement in the workforce,” Ogbonna said.

Roxanne Spindle, an associate professor at the School of Business and a member of the eighth work group, Health Disparities and Social Inequities, was asked to participate as a member of the Faculty Senate. Her group was put together impromptu and had a more open-ended goal, she said.

“They were more about how the synergism could work better between the administration and everything that’s happening at the boots level,” Spindle said.

Spindle said her only concern is not knowing which recommendations will end up implemented.

“We really don’t know what is going to come out, what recommendations will be accepted, whether they look like our recommendations,” Spindle said. “We would like to hear the provost’s decisions earlier rather than later — not that I’m concerned that they’ll be bad decisions, but because there is so much uncertainty as to what’s going to happen.”

Whether or not serving on the task force is worth it depends on the outcome — that is, if the task force’s work becomes concrete proposals, Spindle said.

William Pelfrey Jr., a professor at the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, was part of the Policy and Civics work group.

The group focused on a specific set of schools, including the Wilder School and parts of the medical school, but also discussed broader ideas such as student success, recruitment and online education, according to Pelfrey. The task force, in general, identified academic units struggling with enrollment and retention and, as a result, with budget and finance.

“There’s some academic units that have been losing students at a pretty steady rate,” Pelfrey said. “When the number of students is rapidly approaching the number of faculty — that’s not sustainable. When the expenses associated with the unit vastly outweigh the revenue generated by that unit, something needs to change.”

One struggling unit is the foreign language department, according to Pelfrey. West Virginia University cutting its foreign language department was a frequent topic of discussion.

“The provost said ‘we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to be that university,’” Pelfrey said. “So even if units aren’t generating money, that doesn’t mean they should be on the chopping block. It just means they may need to reorient what they’re doing.”

One proposal outlined in the reports is for the creation of a forensic accounting program, which builds on things the university already has, Pelfrey said.

“That’s a low-cost innovation that could work,” Pelfrey said. “And in three years, if nobody has taken those classes, we find something else to do. But in three years, if we’re starting to build something that doesn’t exist at other places, and our students are getting hired, then we made a good thing.”

Pelfrey said the provost’s office provided enrollment, budget and recruitment data to the task force. Some units within the large, well-performing schools did well, and others did not, according to Pelfrey.

“It was a little bit gratifying to see that not everybody, everywhere is succeeding,” Pelfrey said. “That’s the nature of higher education. Trends change.”

Universities like West Virginia’s efforts at repositioning have fared poorly because they did not come from the ground up and resulted in decisions like cutting entire departments, Pelfrey said.

“That produces a lot of resistance and rebellion,” Pelfrey said. “Faculty get mad, students get mad, students leave. Where repositioning has worked has been a big group from all over the university who said: ‘Here’s a bunch of ideas, let’s figure out which of these ideas make the most sense today.’ That’s what we did.”

Pelfrey said fears and questions about the future are a natural reaction to the process.

“I’m hoping that people view this as a legitimate process where everybody has representation, either on the task force or through meetings with the provost,” Pelfrey said.

Pelfrey said though some programs, such as the humanities, are not profitable, profitability is not the goal of higher education.

“Are we going to be a university that only has programs to make money? Or are we going to be a university that serves the needs of faculty, staff, the community, students — even when some programs operate as a deficit?” Pelfrey said. “I’m hoping we remain as the latter, but with a little bit more of an orientation towards not losing money every year.”

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