Proposed CAHSS reorganization sparks conversation across campus

BY RAEGAN NEUFELD

Two weeks ago, Fort Hays State University Provost Jill Arensdorf proposed a possible reorganized administration structure for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at a college-wide meeting. In a follow-up email sent to CAHSS faculty members, Arensdorf explained the new structure was to help combat issues with enrollment, retention rates and graduation rates within the CAHSS.

“After assessing our challenges and reviewing our data, it has become apparent that we must create an academic College organization that allows us to move more strategically, increase interdisciplinary collaboration and elevate our academic programs,” Arensdorf said in the email. “This elevated structure takes the form of five distinct academic units that we are calling ‘Schools’ right now, each led by an appointed chair.” 

Arensdorf went on to outline each of the five schools, explaining that the 11 current CAHSS departments would be consolidated into the five schools and would be made up of two or three programs. Arensdorf outlined the schools in her email, saying official names would come later.

  • Art and Design, Music and Theatre
  • Communication Studies and Leadership Studies
  • Sociology and Criminal Justice
  • English, Modern Languages and Philosophy
  • History and Political Science

Two weeks ago, the plan for the reorganization was to “replace the eleven academic departments effective July 1, 2022, with the transition continuing over the coming academic year,” per Arensdorf’s email.

However, those plans are now being re-evaluated after initial reactions from faculty and students.

“I didn’t imagine this was going to get the visceral response that it has,” Arensdorf said when addressing the Faculty Senate.

Opposition from students and faculty

As word of the reorganization spread, a number of faculty and students began raising questions and concerns. Two graphic design graduate students, Chelsey Augustine and Caitlyn Frazer, organized an emergency student meeting April 25 to inform students about what was going on. 

Augustine and Frazer opened the meeting by explaining what they knew about the proposed reorganization and sharing their concerns with the standing-room-only audience. 

“I know that this reorganization may not directly affect me,” Augustine said. “We’re both on the last leg of our grad school career, so it may not directly affect us, but I personally find it very irritating. We’ve grown as a department, and we have such nice resources now, and I feel like merging our departments will take away from the faculty’s hard work to make us known.”

Frazer expressed her concerns for future graduate students in the affected departments. Part of the discussion during the meeting covered the possibility of departments sharing funds once housed in the same school.

“I’m thinking of future grads who might not get a (graduate teaching assistant position). That’s what’s really important about being in grad school, is if you can get a GTA, because you’re basically getting paid to teach and learn,” she said.

Augustine and Frazer also talked about the lack of information their faculty had received regarding the reorganization.

“They haven’t been given the courtesy to know exactly what’s going to happen and what the plan is,” Frazer said.

“There’s nothing tangible,” Augustine said. “I think the biggest issue that I personally have with it is that faculty have asked questions, the chairs have asked questions, students have asked questions, and they’re not being given answers.”

The proposal also prompted action by the faculty union. A statement was issued by the Fort Hays chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on April 22, asking for the university to delay the implementation of the reorganization.  

“The only objection that the union specifically had in relation to our governing principles is a concept called shared governance, and the idea that faculty should be included in decision-making processes that impact what they do on a day-to-day basis,” said Janett Naylor-Tincknell, president of the AAUP.

According to the statement, the decision came with “no preliminary discussions, no input from affected faculty, and with no qualitative or quantitative evidence of need or statistics to validate fiscal benefits.”

The AAUP’s statement also addressed the July 1 implementation date, writing that there would not be enough time to adequately evaluate potential consequences or review the implementation. AAUP stated it would oppose the reorganization until its objections had been addressed and faculty were included.

Faculty Senate hosts special meeting

Last Tuesday, a special meeting was hosted by Faculty Senate with the hopes of providing more information about the plan to reorganize the CAHSS structure. Speaking to a crowd of more than 140 faculty members and students, Arensdorf explained why the reorganization needs to happen – as well as what the process would look like moving forward.

One of the first clarifications Arensdorf made was that the process was not complete.

“Trust that this process is just beginning, trust that this process is not over, and trust that I really believe in shared governance,” Arensdorf said. “Maybe what you’ve heard thus far, is that everything is finished. I’m sorry if I communicated that in a way that made you feel that way, because it’s not. We’re just beginning this journey. I hope you will continue on this journey with me.”

Later in the meeting when asked specifically about the July 1 implementation date, Arensdorf said her original message was miscommunicated and misinterpreted.

“The original idea was that we would hopefully have the names of these structures created (by July 1). We’re going back to reengaging,” she said. “There might be some internal things we’re doing by July 1, but there will not be anything submitted.”

Now, the plan is for Arensdorf, CAHSS Interim Dean Daniel Blankenship and the 11 department chairs to regroup this week and discuss how to move forward. 

Naylor-Tincknell said that demonstrates shared governance.

“It was communicated or it was understood that this was a process that will happen,” she said to TMN. “I’m not sure that (the faculty) understood, or it was communicated in a way that indicated that this was an idea. But now that Dr. Arensdorf has decided, as she was saying, to regroup and refocus, then it is not in violation of shared governance.”

Arensdorf also said at the meeting the reorganization will not be a merger and is not about cutting jobs. There will also be no discontinuation of any programs. She said the idea for a new structure – which would help with enrollment, retention rates and graduation rates – came from wanting to get ahead of the Kansas Board of Regents.

Part of the KBOR work involves reviewing programs at universities throughout the state. Following KBOR mandates, FHSU reviews the programs of one college each year, meaning a college will be reviewed every five years.

“Every program within the college is evaluated,” Arensdorf said in an interview with Tiger Media Network. “The evaluation metrics are number of students in the major, number of upper division students in the major, number of faculty; they look at the average ACT score of those majors, and then the number of graduates from the program.”

According to Arensdorf, several of the programs in the CAHSS currently do not meet the benchmark requirements. This year, KBOR has also hired rpk Group, a consultant group to review the process. Both of these reviews could lead to potentially closing programs, which Arensdorf is trying to avoid. 

Arensdorf said pressure from KBOR means no matter what, there will be changes coming to the CAHSS. The meeting between Arensdorf, Blankenship and the department chairs this week will just be the beginning, with more dialogue happening during the summer. After that, Arensdorf hopes to have something both the faculty and KBOR can give feedback on in the fall.

“I don’t want you to hear that we’re just going to go back to 11 departments,” Arensdorf told the Faculty Senate. “That is not the right decision; the status quo is unacceptable. With dialogue and conversation, hopefully, we can consider how we move forward and what that looks like.”

Further thoughts from Arensdorf, Blankenship and President Mason

In her interview with TMN, Arensdorf spoke about her proposal’s reaction.

“I think change is hard. Change is hard for everyone,” she said. “I think the fact that I didn’t have all the details figured out for this made people anxious. I recognize and fully appreciate that, but I didn’t want to do all the detail work. I wanted people to work together on that kind of thing.”

In fact, collaboration is another aspect of the reorganization. Arensdorf described the “structural silos” that currently exist within the CAHSS, and how moving to schools rather than departments could help eliminate the issues. Arensdorf also said the current departmental structure does not evaluate the appropriate level of resources needed for each program.

“I’m hoping that by restructuring and reorganizing, we can eliminate some of those silos, and allow programs to work better together so that the resources can be utilized in better ways to reach more students,” Arensdorf said. 

Blankenship, who has been the interim dean since July, spoke to TMN about the problems with enrollment, retention rates and graduation rates. He said the structural reorganization is also a way to reimagine the CAHSS.

“We also are having strategic planning discussions (in May) to talk about how we promote our programs and how we brand ourselves,” he said. “We’ve been working over the past year to create narratives for the programs we have and for the college. This is all part of a lengthy process that we’ve been talking about, and leads us to look at ways in which we organize for success and reimagine the way the college works.”

Part of Blankenship’s work for the past year as interim dean has involved looking at the issues with enrollment. In September, he produced a 30-day report that showed the decline in enrollment, which is significant in some areas. To combat this decline, the CAHSS has been working to better define the programs for prospective students.

“I launched a process during the past year, having the chairs work on narratives to describe in student-friendly ways what it is we do and how we go about identifying the skills we’re developing in our programs,” Blankenship said.

This process also addresses retention rates for the CAHSS. Blankenship said the faculty has been working to better advertise what students will gain from their program in the future.

“One of our challenges is that we’re not necessarily real clear about how students benefit from our programs. What skills are being developed and how are those skills going to provide employment opportunities? We’ve been talking about that quite a bit,” he said. “We want to find ways to meet the needs of our students that come into our programs, and promote the opportunities for them to recognize what it is that we provide for them in terms of an education.”

According to FHSU President Tisa Mason, the university had seen 19 consecutive years of growth before the COVID-19 pandemic, but has had less enrollment for on-campus students in recent years.

She discussed some of the roadblocks the university faces, as well as what can be done to move past them.

“Our faculty are pretty innovative, so we really rely on them to work with their advisory boards and people in the industry, and to offer new things to stay on top of it,” Mason said. “Generally we’ve done that, but we still have had enrollment challenges. I think that there are things we could do to continue to engage, remove roadblocks and help students to succeed.”

Mason also spoke about the collaboration issues mentioned by Arensdorf. She said any new ideas — possibly about overcoming the enrollment roadblocks — need to come from collaboration between departments and programs.

Mason said she is happy with how the Faculty Senate president handled the special meeting by setting the tone early and was proud of the senators voting to allow the audience to ask questions.

“I’m always talking about an ethic of care,” Mason said. “Even in the January convocation, I said that it’s not just about having an ethic of care towards our students, but towards one another. I know it was an emotional topic, but the emotions and the negativity took over the ethic of care instead of having conversations. As we move forward and open up opportunities for more dialogue,([it’s OK to disagree), but don’t be unkind. There are new opportunities that could come out of this that could be really exciting for students and even for our faculty who are teaching in those programs.”

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