Baker to end 4 majors, eliminate 4 faculty positions in wake of pandemic enrollment shortfalls

photo by: Elvyn Jones

The gateway on the east side of the empty Baker University campus in Baldwin City is pictured Saturday, June 20, 2020.

Baker University is eliminating four full-time faculty positions and four major programs in response to the financial strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the action has sparked a backlash among some students and community members.

The Baker Board of Trustees approved the faculty and program cuts on Feb. 19, and Baker University President Lynne Murray gave more details about the cuts in a video posted to the university’s website on March 2. In a video statement, Murray said she understood the cuts were not popular with some groups. However, she said even before the pandemic the private, liberal arts college based in Baldwin City was working behind the scenes “to move the institution from surviving to thriving.” The pandemic created new financial pressures, she said.

“I’m confident in our choices, and I will put us on firm footing moving forward, while also maintaining our Baker identity and carrying out our mission,” Murray said.

Starting in the fall 2021 semester, the university will no longer offer majors in philosophy, theater, French and German. Philosophy and theater will continue to be offered as minors, but the two language programs will be discontinued both as majors and as minors. On the personnel side, four professors have agreed to retire early, and their positions will not be filled, although some of them will continue to teach part-time.

After student enrollment fell short of projections across all of Baker’s campuses — the main School of Arts and Sciences in Baldwin City, the nursing school in Topeka and the education school and the School of Professional and Graduate Studies in Overland Park — the university formed a faculty committee. It was that committee that recommended the cuts, based in part on relatively low numbers of students who traditionally pursue majors in the fields, Murray said in the video.

But a group of students, parents and other Baker supporters has questioned whether the cuts were necessary in the first place. The group, which calls itself Wildcats for Education, has gathered more than 600 signatures on an online petition calling for the university to share its budget and for Murray to hold a town hall meeting about the cuts.

In a statement accompanying its petition, Wildcats for Education criticizes what it views as a lack of transparency in the process that led to the cuts. It also asks whether the school could have used $5.5 million in federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to offset the impact of the enrollment shortfall, and it questions why the university doesn’t focus on recruiting students for humanities programs and supporting those programs as much as it does its athletic programs.

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When the university got its enrollment totals for all of its campuses in October, it discovered they lagged its projections by 39, said Jason Hannah, the university’s vice president of marketing and communications. Hannah declined to provide the university’s initial enrollment projections or the university’s current enrollment total. But he said that for a small university like Baker, enrollment declines are a big deal.

Past numbers show Baker has faced a decadelong decline in its overall enrollment. For the 2019 fall semester, total enrollment was 2,595 students. That was down from about 3,800 students in 2010 and about 2,700 students in 2015, according to figures published by Baker. Enrollment just at the Baldwin City liberal arts campus, however, has been more stable. Last year its total fall enrollment was 1,135 students, which was down from a recent high of about 1,200 students in 2018 but up from 967 students in 2010, according to numbers published by Baker.

The enrollment projections are an important element of the university’s budget preparations, Hannah said. And when the actual numbers fell short of expectations, Murray said that because the school was committed not to increase tuition or class sizes, there weren’t many options for making up the difference other than cuts.

In her video on March 2, which she produced in response to the Wildcats for Education group’s questions, Murray said that while the university had received millions of dollars from the CARES Act and from its own fundraising efforts, most of that money was earmarked for specific uses.

The CARES Act funding, Murray said, could only be spent on direct financial assistance to students or on efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campuses — purchasing personal protective equipment, installing plexiglass barriers, facilitating outdoor classes and other such initiatives. The university also raised $200,000 on its own for pandemic mitigation efforts, but Murray said that was specifically donated to help students with pandemic-related housing needs and to pay for technology needed for remote learning.

Murray also mentioned two multimillion-dollar fundraising campaigns, the Forever Orange campaign and the Baker Builds campaign. Neither campaign has ended yet. Forever Orange has a goal of raising $28 million, but Murray said that money had to be used according to donors’ instructions. So far, she said, donations had mainly gone toward improvements for classrooms and upgrades at Rice Auditorium. And Baker Builds, which has a fundraising goal of $17 million, is a campaign to upgrade the athletic facilities. The decisions on how to spend the Baker Builds money will be based, in part, on input from students that the university gathered early in the process.

Hannah also emphasized that point.

“Students had a voice in selecting those fundraising goals,” he said. “They just may not be students who are on campus now.”

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When deciding which majors to eliminate, the faculty committee specifically looked for programs that were seeing less enrollment anyway, said Darcy Russell, dean of the Baker School of Arts and Sciences.

The committee reviewed the majors of the university’s graduates for the past ten years, and Russell said that in that time, one student had majored in German and eight had majored in French.

“Our reductions were very much driven by enrollment patterns,” she said. “Those were really the guideposts for what we did.”

The majors will be gone soon, but their classes won’t be eliminated entirely, Russell said. The school will continue to offer lower-level philosophy courses, which are popular and support other majors, she said. And a German professor will continue teaching part-time to offer lower-level language courses for students seeking a bachelor of science degree.

But the elimination of the language majors will affect some students working toward a bachelor of arts, Russell said, because they need more foreign language credits to graduate. Russell said that if these students were taking French or German, they would be allowed to either take Spanish for their remaining courses or transfer credits from other universities. She said the school was also exploring the idea of partnering with other universities to offer language courses via remote learning.

Russell also said that even though the university would no longer offer a theater major, it would offer theater performance scholarships. Right now, the plan is to reduce the number of theater productions from two per semester to one per semester, but Russell said the school “may increase that if there is interest and students want those scholarships.”

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As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition stood at 628 signatures, and its goal is to collect at least 1,000. The Wildcats for Education group is also planning to host a rally on Friday outside the Baker student union.

Hannah, meanwhile, suggested that there might be better news on the horizon for the university: He said Baker’s 2021-2022 recruitment numbers for the Baldwin City campus so far had been very close to pre-pandemic levels.

“To be within arm’s length is something to be celebrated given the rough patch all colleges have been through,” he said.

Hannah also said that while the school might be losing a few majors, it had also been adding programs in the past five years. The university has created majors in health humanities, human biology and recreation and five new minors in a variety of fields, including gender studies and data analytics.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article contained comments attributed to Baker student Chris Moreira. However, a source falsely identified himself as Moreira when talking to a Journal-World reporter. Moreira did not provide comment to the Journal-World.