Academics / Budget / Enrollment / University

Art department restructuring class offerings due to low enrollment, down $1.6 million in revenues

Haslett senior James Carr works on a project during his Art 430: Painting IV class Monday afternoon in Wightman Hall. (Photo by Paige Calamari/File Photo)

The College of Communications and Fine Arts’ art department is feeling the pressure of campus-wide low enrollment, igniting a major restructuring and a rotation of its course offerings.

The college as a whole is down nearly $1.6 million in projected revenues from last year. In effect, some fixed-term faculty members teaching 2D and 3D studio art classes might be out of a job.

“They’re being laid off and will be collecting unemployment soon,” said David Stairs, a graphic design professor and head of the graphic design unit. “Some of them have been here since the mid-1990s; some are alumni. I’m sure they’re disappointed.”

According to CCFA Dean Salma Ghanem, the art department has experienced a significant drop in enrolled student credit hours, which has caused nearly a 32-percent drop in enrolled student credit hours.

In 2011, the department had students enrolled in 6,713 credit hours. That number fell to 5,576 in 2012, and dropped again to 4,767 in 2013. These numbers reflect the totals at the beginning of each fall semester.

Other units, such as the communication and dramatic arts department, have experienced a downward trend in enrolled student credit hours as well, but not nearly to the degree of the art department, Ghanem said.

The drops in enrollment manifested in low head counts in key courses, leaving officials with two options: Either cut classes or rotate the offerings around to ensure greater interest and more students.

“What was happening was that we had some classes being offered that were too small to be offered,” Ghanem said. “It is not feasible to offer a class of five to six students.”

For Ghanem, the solution is not in cutting course offerings, but rotating course offerings each semester.

“What we’re looking at are degree plans in such a way where the course rotation can be offered to guarantee that students will graduate on time,” she said. “We’re trying to avoid the idea of class cancellations and be a lot more strategic in how we’re offering courses. If you have five or six students in the fall offering, we might rotate that offering and only offer it in the spring.”

While these rotations help to avoid removing courses for students, it does mean a reduction in teaching opportunities for fixed-term faculty.

“If we don’t have enough classes for the faculty, I have to cancel a class,” Ghanem said. “If there are not enough classes, our priority is courses for tenured and tenure-track faculty. Then we think about fixed-term faculty.”

Tackling budget woes

Ghanem said no plans for restructure, such as strategy and implementation, have been finalized. In order to finalize these plans, a departmental vote must take place.

No such vote has occurred at this time, she said, yet art department chairperson Larry Burditt held a meeting with art department faculty last week to let them know just how serious the situation is.

Burditt refused to comment on both the restructuring and the meeting.

Aside from low enrollment, CCFA is also experiencing financial stress as its operating expenses have increased as enrollment and revenues have decreased. Operating expenses include staff and faculty salaries, insurance benefits, worker’s compensation, supplies and equipment costs.

In 2012-13, the department tallied about $18.5 million in operating expenses, with a total revenue stream of $38 million. Projected expenditures for 2013-14 have been tallied at $18.7 million, with revenues down to $36.5 million.

Ghanem said her college is tackling both the enrollment and budget woes with a two-pronged strategy – one that includes active recruiting around the state and the greater Chicago area at various art fairs and classrooms, in addition to the rotation in courses.

Stairs applauded the recruitment efforts of his unit and others in the art department. He questions whether heavy recruitment is the answer at a time when instructors are getting laid off.

“There’s always talk about reviewing the curriculum and updating it,” he said. “It’s complicated, but there’s been a lot of effort into that. If the enrollment challenge comes around and you’ve cut programs, you’ve made yourself less flexible. It’s a crap shoot and a guessing game. You take your best shot and hope you’ll be right.”

Stairs doesn’t believe the department is specifically going after fixed-term faculty as a remedy. Ghanem made it a point to emphasize how hard it is to tell an instructor they might not have a teaching job that semester.

“Fixed-term faculty members understand that their employment is contingent on enrollment,” she said. “However, every time we cannot have a fixed-term faculty member teach a class that has been teaching for a long time, it’s not easy (to tell them). If the students aren’t there and the class is not available, that’s just how the system works.”

In Stairs’ opinion, fixed-term studio art instructors are victims to the circumstances. Moreover, he understands their plight, even as a tenured professor.

“Back in the ’90s, when I was not tenured, enrollment was not an issue at that point,” he said. “But for so many years, I did not have a teaching job, just trying to survive as an artist. It’s not fun. I can imagine what these people are going through.”


  1. The art department would not be in such turmoil if the so-called “foundations” classes weren’t such a HUGE waste of time and money, scaring away potential art students. I understand that you need to get people eased into any degree, but when I took all my foundations courses I was able to breeze through them by doing minimal work, and by barely showing up to class–they were far less advanced that my high school art classes. Not to mention *some* of the horrific staff that teaches these. Now, as a 6th year senior, I am just starting to finally get to the point where the classes I take are challenging, interesting, and taught by excellent professors. But it took SIX YEARS! The only reason I even stayed in the program is because it’s my passion, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. But what a scam.

  2. The art department needs a makeover. The foundation classes are way too easy. I feel like I have gotten worse as an artist than how I was in High School. I wish I actually learned new things in my art classes. It’s the same old teachings so I get bored. I’m paying thousands of dollars to take foundation courses that teach me things I already know. I also think the school needs to invest in the art program. Graphic Design is a big major yet very few students can get into the program due to lack of computers. The University needs to get more computers and expand the Graphic Design program. They only accept about 10 people a semester due to lack of computers. It’s absurd when it is such a growing field. The university is so out of touch with the needs of the students that it makes me so upset. They see enrollment it down yet their only solution is to give out more scholarships and then raise tuition for the rest of us. I’m sure if they actually asked the students for feedback they would see where the problems lay. The university blames the department for the failures, when the university is to blame as well.

  3. Maybe CMU should pay their over worked adjunct professors a little more money and stop stripping them of health benefits. In addition I agree with the other comments here make the foundations courses way more rigorous, stop coddling the whiners and weed out the lazy asses who don’t put the work in. Larger universities do this all the time and get way better work out of their students.

  4. chipskeptic says:

    This is such a target rich environment, that one is hard pressed to know where to begin….

    1) Stairs gives us this pearl, ““But for so many years, I did not have a teaching job, just trying to survive as an artist. It’s not fun. I can imagine what these people are going through.” So you COULD NOT survive as an artist, and ran to the safe bosom of academe. Aren’t you supposed to be showing people how to “make it” as an artist? How can you, when you cannot do so yourself??? See the problem?

    2) The program should be gutted with some rigor imbued in the curriculum.

    3) “Art alum” – Adjunct’s are not SUPPOSED to get any benefits. That is the point. They are not full time and they are simply paid to teach a class. Otherwise instead of hiring an army of adjunct’s just hire a few more full timers.

  5. Foundation Course

    Oxford Dictionary:
    “a course taken at some colleges and universities, either in a wide range of subjects or in one subject at a basic level, preparing students for more advanced study”

    Macmillan Dictionary:
    “a course at a university or college that covers a range of subjects at a basic level and prepares students for a longer, more advanced course”

    Longman Dictionary:
    “a general course of study that introduces students to a subject, and is taught in the first year at some universities”

    More advanced students taking any Foundations Course may find the information redundant or boring. For the first-time-student this information is new, exciting, scary and vital should they continue studying in that area. Not everyone comes in with the same breadth of knowledge. These courses attempt to ensure a certain degree of knowledge for all students continuing in a particular area of study regardless of their existing knowledge/skill on the topic.

  6. michmediaperson says:

    Totally agree with Chipskeptic.
    Long overdue. I’ve been saying this for years.
    Cut faculty. Quit wasting money.

    About time CMU starts giving people pink slips.

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