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Task-force recommendations a good start for UI’s budget problems

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 17, 2010 7:30 AM

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Money is tight at the UI, and graduate programs are no different. Releasing their respective reports and recommendations on Monday, six UI task forces underscored that sobering reality.

The Task Force on Graduate Education found that 14 programs required “additional evaluation.” Some notables: film studies, German, and health and sports studies. The report concluded that in order for these 14 to continue, program leadership must look at restructuring or merging.

Another task force proposed tying faculty’s salary to performance. Professors would be compensated based on how well he or she met certain criteria established by her or his department. Faculty members who surpassed expectations could be given bonuses along with their base pay.

We support both proposals, with a few reservations.

Merging programs is by far the most egalitarian option and would avoid unnecessary and austere program cuts. But while we support the idea in principle, it’s also important to recognize the possible downsides of such a strategy.

“I have seen nightmare scenarios at other institutions, where programs were mismatched together, and they ended up falling apart,” said Russell Valentino, the chairman of the cinema and comparative-literature department.

Increasing efficiency and productivity in certain programs can allow for continued growth, and measured merging is a positive option as well. We strongly urge UI officials to make phasing out programs a last resort — or not an option at all.

John Keller, the dean of the Graduate College, listed two graduate programs as necessities for the UI and the state.

“Regardless of quality, we probably are not going to get rid of the master’s of science in nursing or public health,” Keller said. “These are programs that are targeted for our workforce in the state, so it behooves us to have these programs.”

Naturally, we cannot quibble with the argument that nursing degrees are vital to our state’s welfare and workforce. Nevertheless, we believe program size — one category the task force used — is a fundamentally poor, specious evaluator.

If we begin to evaluate graduate programs by size, we disregard programs’ unique characteristics. As a Tier-1 institution, we must provide the most thorough and comprehensive education possible.

Discontinuing any graduate program not only makes that goal impossible — it lowers our reputation in the academic world.

The best-case scenario for the coming months is an equal partnership between each graduate program and the UI administration to solve the underlying budget issues. We can all take this opportunity to craft a better university. But a better university does not mean cutting programs.

Agreeing on that is a first step toward success and prosperity.

The proposal to tie professor pay to performance is also a good one. Our one caveat: We urge departments not to include student grades in performance evaluations. Faculty Council President David Drake told The Daily Iowan he didn’t think departments would ever tie evaluations to students’ grades.

We hope he’s right. On its face, student grades may seem to be the most logical area to consider. If a professor teaches well, students will receive better grades, right? Not quite. It is a common fallacy to judge professors in this manner. Instructors can control their level of preparedness, attitude, and work ethic. But student involvement and participation is often beyond their control.

In programs with smaller class sizes, such as English and journalism, student grades are a clearer reflection of professor quality. But even in this instance, it’s never assured that student grades will correspond with teacher efficacy. In addition, linking performance to grades could give professors an incentive to hand out higher scores or lower course standards.

The UI is in undeniably tough times. Still, we’re encouraged by Monday’s reports and welcome further discourse. With a few tweaks, these proposals could be successful in reforming the university and averting more drastic cuts.


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