Reimagining LAS: Faculty comments on impact


Photo by Katherine Kealey

Beardshear Hall was constructed in 1906 and serves as the administration building at Iowa State University.

Ashlyn Ware

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) is facing budget cuts that are forcing the college departments to “reimagine” their educational structure. There have been emotional responses from department faculty as they try to predict forthcoming changes.

LAS Dean Beate Schmittmann released a message to faculty and the public in mid-March stating that the college’s annual budget deficit would grow to $15 million by the fiscal year 2025.

The budget cuts stem from decreased student enrollment university-wide. Enrollment numbers have decreased since 2016, causing a burden on the college’s tuition-based budget, according to Schmittmann. 

Schmittmann reframed the budget cuts as an opportunity to update the LAS curriculum to better suit student and employer demands.

“One of the goals of Reimagining LAS is to create the resources so that we can offer degrees in areas that students are especially interested in today,” Schmittmann said.

The college began introducing modern degrees such as a master’s degree in artificial intelligence, an undergraduate degree in climate science and an undergraduate degree in data science.

“The goal that I have is that we’re going to become even more student-centered,” Schmittmann said. “That we’re really going to be even more mindful of what our students [are] interested [in] today.”

There were five metrics used to determine the budget cut for each department: 1) the number of students in the major, 2) enrollment changes over the past five years, 3) teaching and student credit hours, 4) course demand and 5) department research productivity.

The roughly 20 percent decrease in university enrollment and students bringing in dual-credit course work from high school are the main driving factors, said Mack Shelley, chair of the political science department.

Increasing enrollment is the best solution, Shelley said, but the initiative is focused more on cutting expensive salaries instead. 

“You’ve gotta understand from the perspective of trying to fill a really deep budgetary hole,” Shelley said. “One kind of obvious way to help that problem out is for more expensive hired, salaried tenured track faculty to leave by retirement basically. And then, if they’re replaced at all, to replace them with the less expensive term, non-tenure track.”

Shelley said the restructuring of the political science department will be hiring term faculty rather than tenured faculty. Tenured faculty are more expensive, and they divide their time between teaching and research. Term faculty is less expensive and focus completely on teaching.

“The quality of the courses is probably going to be fine,” Shelley said. “To term faculty in fact, by definition, because they specialize in teaching, that’s where they put their effort.”

Shelley said he doesn’t think students will notice a difference in their education. They might notice fewer course sections or niche courses, but nothing drastic. 

David Alexander, a professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies, wrote in an email correspondence that students will suffer from the “Reimagining LAS initiative.”

Alexander’s classes tackle difficult discussions such as death, which students are eager to talk about.

“And it is clear from my students’ engagement that they are starving for such discussion — discussion that treats them as whole persons rather than as myopically concerned only with their careers,” Alexander wrote. “Helping young adults blossom into independent, autonomous thinkers ready to face a cruel world is what is lost when the liberal arts are slashed.”

Despite being one of the most efficient departments in the college, the philosophy and religious studies department have one of the biggest budget cuts of 25 percent. The college administration is allowing the department to decide what changes to make, likely because the decision is impossible, wrote Alexander.

“Part of the reason for this is that in subsequent discussions it has been made clear that the college knows that given years of cutbacks to our budget, at this point it is mathematically impossible for us to make cuts that will add up to 25 percent,” Alexander wrote. “If there was some way that this was feasible the college would have encouraged or demanded that we make those changes. But they haven’t.”

Unlike the political science department, which plans on replacing retired or leaving tenure faculty, the philosophy and religious studies department doesn’t have any faculty close to retirement.

“We make the college much more than we cost,” Alexander wrote. “We have high teaching loads. In addition to teaching our own majors, we teach courses that are needed for the accreditation of other programs like the business school and computer science, and we play a crucial role in teaching courses that satisfy gen ed requirements. Finally, we are some of the most poorly paid faculty in the college.”

At face value, the English department has a smaller budget cut of 7.5 percent. But English professor K.L. “Kenny,” Cook wrote in an email correspondence that none of those cuts can come from foundational courses. This means the undergraduate and graduate programs have closer to a 25 percent cut. 

“The dean has since given our department chair more prescriptive direction,” Cook wrote. “She met with the faculty on March 30 and made clear that she expects radical changes to our identity and curriculum, as well as increases to our already heavy workloads.”

Departments are hashing out plans currently, and Schmittmann expects final plans by November or early in the new year.

The religious studies office has already begun “reimagining” its program descriptions and has reduced the religion major to 27 credits, according to Jeffrey Wheatley, assistant professor in the philosophy and religious studies department. 

“So that work of reimagining the program is something that’s already happening, and I’m really excited about the future of the program and our students,” Wheatley said.

Wheatley said he doesn’t think the “Reimagining LAS” initiative is only about money.

“We’re like [the first] or second most efficient department in the college in terms of budget versus revenue,” Wheatley said. “So we aren’t that expensive to fund, and we bring in a lot of money. So I don’t think of this all in terms of financials.”

Wheatley’s optimism reflects Schmittmann’s emphasis on evolving the college to keep up with changing student and employer demands.

“We can’t lock ourselves into a particular way of thinking about who we are because it makes us lose out on, you know, how the world around us is changing, and how we need to respond to that and maybe even drive some of the change,” Schmittmann said.

However, professors Alexander and Cook are posing the question, ‘Will this change be beneficial to students’ education?’

“Just as importantly, it is supposed to be an education markedly different than mere vocational training in that it treats the student not just as a potential worker, but rather as a whole human being,” Alexander wrote.

Dean Schmittmann said that “Reimagining LAS” is about meeting student and employer demands, but Alexander fears that the value of a liberal arts education is being discarded for the sake of producing workers. And Alexander is not alone in this opinion.

“I view, along with many of my college colleagues, the “Reimagining LAS Initiative” with some degree of cynicism,” Cook wrote. “It sounds like a phrase out of George Orwell’s 1984 — a form of administrative doublespeak.”

Cook is also concerned about the potential content restrictions of this initiative.

“Not surprisingly, these differential cuts are targeted primarily at departments and programs that embody and teach the diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum, not to mention history, literature, artistic expression, rhetoric, culture, critical reasoning and ethics,” Cook wrote.

A liberal arts education can round out a student’s education.

K-12 education is tightly regulated and doesn’t include topics like religion, Wheatley said. Wheatley said that religion “often falls through the cracks of our educational system,” but religion is intertwined in society, politics and even entertainment media.  

“Yeah, religion is kind of everywhere, once you figure out how to study it and you can kind of see its influence in popular culture in our courtrooms in our government, right,” Wheatley said. “And so in our classes, we try to give students the skills to kind of see that and analyze it be more aware.”

Schmittmann doesn’t object. 

“I think that’s very important for students to be well educated, [well] rounded engineers, you know, agriculture experts, whatever it is,” Schmittmann said. “So, you know, we have a commitment to continue to provide, you know, a good set of choices for students who are interested in history or interested in some of the other humanities’ disciplines at Iowa State University.”

This is little comfort for professors Alexander and Cook.

“It would be a catastrophe for students if the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences no longer provided students with the opportunity of a traditional liberal arts education,” Alexander wrote. 

Despite Schmittmann’s optimism over Iowa State’s ability to continue to offer a diverse set of courses, some faculty are concerned that the changes could do students a disservice.

“And I fear that this initiative will, in the end, intellectually and ethically impoverish the college and the university,” Cook wrote.

However, Schmittmann is optimistic that the initiative, while both logistically and emotionally difficult to pursue, will be worthwhile for the future of Iowa State students.

“But I think, you know, again, if we do this right, if we really focus and are willing to make some tough decisions, we’ll come out stronger and we’ll come out much more sustainable and much better positioned to, you know, respond to growth opportunities, even initiate some new trends,” Schmittmann said.

Read more about the “Reimagining LAS” initiative in this summary. See the breakdown of department budget cuts here.