Clean up the catalog

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At last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, UT President William Powers Jr. faced a series of questions about the current debate surrounding the efficiency of the University. The problem, as Powers sees it, is “a federalism one — who decides what and at what level.” In short, the University should not be micromanaged.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recently suggested that it would cut any degree program at public colleges and universities that fails to graduate at least 25 students over five years. At UT, the Greek and Latin majors have been given as examples of at-risk, low-producing programs.

On its face, the board’s rule seems to fit the type of micromanagement that Powers derided. And it hardly needs saying that the value of a major cannot be accurately measured by the number of students who graduate with it.

Powers said cutting the Greek program would seriously injure students studying other topics. Students majoring in religious studies, classics and ancient history routinely take Greek language courses. Their ability to study the ancient world would be severely limited were UT to lack the expert Greek language faculty it has now.

The increased sorting of students into smaller and smaller bins creates this apparent inefficiency despite the problem being only one of perception. It is not hard to see how this process results in low enrollment for given majors. If programs are defined narrowly, of course only a small number of students will fit into them.

The University’s enrollment numbers for the classics department in fall 2010 illustrate the point. Instead of 94 students studying the classics, broadly defined, we have 26 students studying ancient history and civilization, 31 studying classical architecture, 27 studying classics and 10 studying Latin. Zero students were majoring in Greek during this semester and the fall semester preceding it.

But all of these programs require students to take at least some Greek or Latin. Outside observers are not likely to delve into the course catalog to determine the true extent to which a Greek major differs from a classics major — very little — and instead cry waste. Whether or not such waste is real rather than superficial is no doubt highly situational.

But small departments are proliferating at an alarming rate. Even many of the so-called interdisciplinary programs are themselves tiny silos by another name. And we do not need any more silos; we need more warehouses.

In the case of the Greek major, the problem is illusory. Enough students take the classes to make teaching them worthwhile. But that can be hard to convey to outside observers.

The problem is that the University’s organizational structure allows and, in some cases, seems to encourage these situations to develop. UT can avoid harmful micromanagement by, as Powers recently put it, “cleaning up the catalog” and correcting incorrect perceptions of this type that can make great headlines but are not actual problems.

Matt Daley for the editorial board.