Liberty responds to student concerns
As university improvements continue to unfold, changes in academics have caused students and faculty to question the administration’s reasoning regarding recent cutbacks.
Over the past 40 years, Liberty University has maintained a steady increase of students, academic programs and facilities, Liberty’s Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Dr. Ronald Godwin said.
“Liberty has experienced dramatic improvements in the quality of its academic programs and more recently, under the leadership of Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., remarkable expansion of its buildings and campus,” Godwin said.
“We have cut or are going to cut some courses that are not necessary to complete degrees,” Godwin said. “Courses that have suffered from chronically low enrollment over the past three years. “
However, Liberty’s Vice President for Administrative Information Management and Registrar Lawrence Shackleton said that the changes in course offerings will not hinder students from reaching their desired graduation date.
The rapid growth of the university has caused some students such as current junior Beki Eisentrout to question why the university is in need of cutbacks at all.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Eisentroutsaid. “Why would we need to make cutbacks? We have heard numerous times that we are in good financial standing. I was under the impression we were growing.”
The administration, however, focused its response on “the challenges and dangers posed by Liberty’s growth,” while continuing to answer student concerns and questions via a series of open forums.
“We are the only school in Virginia that actually pays for the residential program through tuition and fees,” Shackleton said. “That is huge. It is unprecedented. Other schools either borrow money, or take it out of their endowment.”
Having seen Liberty and surrounding universities change over the past years, Shackleton expressed his support of the administrative decision.
“When you have more (expenses) than (income that) you can spend, as some universities have done in the recent past, then you are not going to succeed,” Shackleton said. “Just because we have the means today does not mean we will have them tomorrow. We are preparing.”
‘”It is true that Liberty is financially stable. However, we have a net margin (a margin of profit) from our resident operations that comes to only three percent,” Godwin said. “That is not a large margin.”
The decision to cut classes was not a simple one, Liberty’s Registrar for Operations Laura Mills explained.
“Transitions aren’t fun, but change is necessary,” Mills said. “No changes that are made at this university are made quickly though. Every change has been evaluated and re-evaluated to make sure (the Administration) look at every aspect.”
Questions of logic
Many students, such as current freshman Kiersten LeMieur, have begun to voice their concerns regarding the promised increase in class size and the caliber of education they may receive from a class of 100 students.
“Coming from a small Christian school, sometimes even 20 to 30 students in a class seems big,” LeMieur said. “I can only imagine having 40 to 60. I am less likely to ask questions and be involved. Also, the professors don’t pay attention to individuals, so I learn less. ”
However, Godwin promises students that they are still going to be receiving the best education available.
“We are increasing class sizes in some entry-level courses where we deemed such increases will not damage the quality of the instruction or the content of the course,” Godwin said. “These adjustments are being made not primarily to achieve financial savings, but to ensure the best use of our contracted academic personnel.”
Students taking classes such as English 101 and Communication Studies 101 will be among the few experiencing these increased class sizes in the fall of 2011.
“Why should honors classes get to be capped at a certain number of students when regular classes teaching similar material have over 100,” Eisentrout said. “To me, it seems like that showcases how students learn better in smaller groups.”
According to Godwin, Liberty is one of more than 100 universities across the nation that are evaluating the numbers and kinds of academic programs they are offering in order to “operate more cost effectively in the future.”
Although there has been much speculation among students as to the amount of consideration offered by the administration, both Shackleton and Godwin assure that the decisions have been well discussed.
“A taskforce of academic leaders have invested literally hundreds of hours analyzing course enrollments, faculty qualifications and loads, levels of student interest in programs of study and numerous other issues important to Liberty’s academic future,” Godwin said.
Through new construction, rapid growth of the online program, and course evaluation, Liberty is changing with the future in mind, according to Shackleton.
As Liberty continues to expand, professors are being evaluated as to their degree of student satisfaction and the quality of student learning under their teaching, according to Godwin.
“The chancellor understands that our online programs bring in sufficient money,” Shackleton said. “It makes us profitable as a school, but what happens when that changes? So many schools have gotten used to the extra money they currently bring in and not paid attention to resident campus operations. The courses there have almost no purpose.”
The continued improvement of the university hinges on the decisions made at the critical point that the university is currently approaching, according to Shackleton.
“For smaller classes that are only 20 or so students it is hard to get into, especially entry level courses,” current freshman Hannah Kirse said. “I think it will be better to have those classes increase in student number because then students can get them out of the way sooner.”
No faculty members, degree programs or minors have been cut in the midst of the changes, Godwin said.
“No faculty members are being terminated and no salaries, benefits, professional development funds or committee memberships have been reduced for any faculty, reassigned or otherwise — none,” Godwin said. “Further, no required courses or degree programs have been cut. And no student’s planned graduate date will be delayed by the changes planned for next fall.”
“Faculty who will be receiving the new flex contract will be eligible to return to primary residential duty as early as spring semester of next year,” Godwin said. “And it should be noted that less than 50 faculty out of just over 2000 are actually being reassigned for what may be no longer than one to two semesters.”
However, faculty members are not the only people who will be affected by the change in course offering and professor availability according to Shackleton.
“This will impact the students. Freshmen, sophomores and even juniors will all have to learn to plan ahead,” Shackleton said. “Some classes that used to be taught every semester will now only be taught once a year.”
The classes that are being moved to once a year were classes which previously suffered from low enrollment, according to Godwin.
“With the additional spacing that is being inserted between certain course offering, freshmen and sophomores need to do a better job preparing their four-year plan,” Godwin said.
Through group forums and individualized meetings the administration hopes to dispel rumors and inform the students, to address their concerns and to clearly and completely answer their questions, Godwin said.
“I have added a title to our registrar. Mr. Shackleton is now also known as your ‘Ombudsman,’” Godwin said. “If there is a student who is on the track to graduate at a scheduled date and any of the new spacing of courses would cause you to fall off your planned date, he will find a solution that might even mean scheduling private instruction to ensure you graduate on time and as scheduled.”
The changes being made at the university are major, Mills said. However, they are the type of changes that will propel Liberty into a new league of university.
“All organizations that enjoy long-term health do from time to time make necessary reductions in their inventories and personnel, and changes in their operating policies,” Godwin said. “All across America and right here in the state of Virginia university after university is taking these very steps. But where they have had to cut Liberty has only needed to reassign.”
The advantage of having a prosperous online program is that the university has an actual need for all of the professors who were reassigned, Shackleton said.
Shackleton, Mills and Godwin agree that the changes the university is seeing are to benefit both the current and future student population.
“There is no student question which we desire to leave unanswered, no concern we wish to treat as trivial,” Godwin said. “There will be no student left behind.”
“As we bring the first 40 years to a close, and the Chancellor leads us into a new era, it was his intent and my assignment to put our academic house in order,” Godwin said. “With the purpose that we might best be able to add new academic programs and enhance existing programs to realize Liberty University’s potential for the next 40 years.”
For more information about the forums or to speak with someone regarding personalized assistance because of the changes, contact the registrar’s office at email@example.com.