Regents terminate degree programs at UNK

John Bender is Kearns Professor Emeritus of Journalism.

The Board of Regents voted to abolish degree programs in geography, theatre and recreation management at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and comments by regents and administrators suggested more cuts are coming.

The programs eliminated are the bachelor of arts and bachelor of science in geography; the bachelor of arts in 7-12 teaching in geography; the bachelor of arts in theatre; the bachelor of music in musical theatre; the bachelor of science in recreation, outdoor and event management; and the bachelor of science in recreation management. The recommendations to end the programs were based on UNK’s need to cut spending and the low numbers of students they graduated.

The Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education expects undergraduate programs to graduate an average of seven students a year over a five-year period. The UNK geography program has graduated 18 majors over five years. Theatre has graduated 31 students over five years and has 19 majors enrolled. The musical theatre program has graduated four over five years and has no majors enrolled. The recreation degree programs have 12 students enrolled. The documentation did not state how many had graduated from the recreation programs over the last five years.

Several UNK faculty members, students and alumni testified in defense of the theatre programs. Sharon Campbell, chair of the department of music, theatre and dance, said few students start out as theatre majors. Most enter the program after they have participated in a theatre production. She also said the creation of a minor in theatre or musical theatre would boost interest and enrollment.

 Temo Molina, the student regent from UNK, said the termination of the theatre programs was more complex that the termination of the others because they are larger. Also, the proposal to eliminate them had only two and half months of consideration. The compressed timeline, he said, left gaps.

UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said it would be difficult to justify continuing to spend $546,000 to $565,000 annually on a program that produces only 5.6 graduates a year and has five tenured faculty members. “If this isn’t cut, where will the cuts come? Do you want to go out to the public and tell them you’re saving a program that has the same number of students as faculty?” he asked.

Across the country, programs like geography and theatre are struggling to maintain enrollments, Kristensen said. “I’d like to keep theatre, but that’s not reality,” he said.

Kristensen said the affected faculty would continue working through the 2024-2025 academic year, and students in the programs would have opportunities to complete their degrees, possibly by taking other classes.

The scrutiny for small programs is not limited to UNK. Executive Vice President and Provost Jeffrey Gold said the university is looking at lower-enrollment programs across all campuses. The goal, he said, is to try to bring them together so they can survive rather than eliminate them.

The proposals to cut the degree programs passed with unanimous votes of the elected regents. Student Regent Molina opposed the elimination of the theatre programs, but student regents are not officially voting members of the board.

Earlier in the regents meeting, Chris Kabourek was sworn in as the interim president. After taking office, Kabourek said he planned to move ahead with structural changes to the university necessary to address fiscal problems. He acknowledged the changes will be difficult.

“Words like ‘structural change’ and ‘disruption’ can cause people to worry,” Kabourek said, but the anxiety is unavoidable. “If we’re comfortable, we’re probably not making progress.”

Kabourek also said a strong alignment between UNL and the University of Nebraska Medical Center could dramatically raise UNL’s standings in terms of research grant money and make it possible for the university to regain membership in the Association of American Universities.

The Feb. 9 meeting also marked a change in leadership in the Board of Regents. Robert Schafer of Beatrice became the new chair of the board. Schafer said the University of Nebraska cannot expect to be everything for everybody, but it can excel in selected areas. He named four areas of emphasis: agriculture, athletics, medicine and the military.

When the board looked at a proposal to create an undergraduate certificate program at UNL in social entrepreneurship, asked about the enrollment prospects for the program, which is designed to prepare students to work in nonprofit organizations. Katherine Ankerson, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the enrollment was projected to rise from 15 to 40 students over five years, reflecting the growth in nonprofit organizations and the need for trained workers. Also, the program would not require additional staff or resources, she said. The proposal was approved.

The board received a number of reports, and among them was the annual report on tenure density. The report shows the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the NU system and at each campus for the years 2013, 2018, 2022 and 2023. The number of tenured faculty at UNL has declined over those years, but the percentage of faculty who are tenured has increased. For the NU system, the percentage of tenured faculty has decreased 8.4%. The full report is below.