University of Lynchburg to cut 17 programs, dozens of faculty and staff positions (2024)

Update, 2:30 p.m. June 4: This story has been updated with new information from the University of Lynchburg about the school’s previous financial situation. University President Alison Morrison-Shetlar said in a video about the cuts that she had inherited a $12 million budget deficit when she arrived at the school in 2020. However, the university actually had a balanced budget for the 2021 fiscal year (or a surplus, when including federal COVID aid funding).

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The University of Lynchburg announced Thursday it will eliminate 12 undergraduate and five graduate programs, phasing them out over the next few years as students complete those programs. The announcement is the private university’s latest move to cut costs at a time when small colleges are in intense competition to attract new students.

The reduction will impact about 5% of undergraduate students and 4% of graduate students.

“No one will be asked to abandon the hard work they have done. Moving forward, these programs will simply not enroll any new students,” university President Alison Morrison-Shetlar said in a video released Thursday.

Some of the majors the university currently offers have only one or two students. “This is not sustainable, nor is it responsible,” she said.

The majors to be eliminated are business studies, community and nonprofit leadership, diversity strategies, management, music, music education, physics, religious studies, Spanish, Spanish education, special education, and theater. Business studies, community and nonprofit leadership, and diversity strategies are majors exclusively for students in Lynchburg’s Access program for adults over 25.

Twenty-five minors will also be eliminated, ranging from music and theater to gender studies, German and arts administration.

The university will also phase out its MBA in cybersecurity along with four Masters of Education specializations. These reductions will represent about 4% of all graduate students once the programs are phased out, said Heather Bradley, associate vice president of marketing and communications.

About 40 faculty positions will be eliminated as the programs end.

The university will reduce its executive leadership team by four roles and eliminate a total of about 40 positions on the university staff. Those layoffs will occur immediately.

Those in eliminated roles will receive severance, and anyone using the school’s education benefits toward a degree can continue to do so for the duration of their program, Morrison-Shetlar said.

Though some faculty and staff might stay on at the university in a different capacity, the position cuts likely will reduce the number of employees by approximately 12.5%.

“Many other colleges and universities are cutting programs, and, for the sake of our future, we must too,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “But we are going a step further. For the sake of our people — our students, faculty, and staff — we are strategically restructuring our entire university around them.”

The university has about 1,500 undergraduate students and about 820 graduate students, according to a student profile document for spring 2023 published on its website.

Ten years ago, it had more than 2,100 undergraduates and nearly 600 graduate students, per data from the State Council for Higher Education.

The majority of students are concentrated in just eight of Lynchburg’s 51 majors, the school’s release noted.

Last year, Lynchburg conferred one degree in Spanish language and literature, one in theater and four in music. It conferred three degrees in special education and zero in physics, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly half of the 347 undergraduate degrees awarded in 2022-2023 were in majors related to biology, business administration, nursing and criminology.

After almost a century with the name Lynchburg College, Lynchburg became a university in 2018 to reflect its increasing number of graduate programs. At that time, the board of trustees decided that the academic affairs department would review the academic structure of the university within three to five years.

Now, the university is transitioning to a three-school model — liberal arts and sciences, medicine and health, and professional and applied sciences — to help it operate more efficiently, according to a website the university provided to answer questions about the changes.

Morrison-Shetlar came on board as president in 2020. In the video released Thursday, she said that the school was running a $12 million deficit at the time.

The day after the video came out, however, a former university official questioned that figure to Cardinal News. In response to an inquiry, a school spokesperson said Morrison-Shetlar had misspoken in the video. In fact, the school had reported a balanced budget — or a surplus of $4.3 million, when federal COVID aid was included — in fiscal year 2021, the spokesperson said.

Over the next several years, enrollment continued to decline and pandemic-era aid programs ended. By the summer of 2022, the school was budgeting a $12 million deficit for fiscal year 2023.

That fall, the school created a faculty committee to make recommendations for cutting nearly $4 million from the academic affairs budget at the school. “Most of those recommendations have been acted upon, whether in previous academic years or during these current changes,” the university website said.

Lynchburg previously had decided not to renew contracts for four non-tenured faculty members at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year as part of its effort to cut costs.

Lynchburg has more faculty and staff than other institutions of a similar size, according to the university, and eliminating some roles will “right size” the university, the website noted.

Bradley did not specify particular departments when asked Thursday, but said the reductions “were spread across the university.”

“Lynchburg is not in a crisis, but we are at a crossroads,” Morrison-Shetlar said in her video address. “No school has the luxury of maintaining the status quo right now.”

Small colleges in Southwest Virginia are increasingly turning to the “school” model of organization as they compete for students.

Ferrum College restructured in February to organize its programs under six schools.

Ferrum President Mirta Martin on Thursday said the new schools better guide potential applicants — many of whom are first-generation college students — to Ferrum. “We’re making it very clear what we have to offer,” she said.

The schools, which group together majors like business with technology, or education with behavioral sciences, help foster collaboration among academic specialties and aid students in getting the interdisciplinary skills they need to enter the workforce, Mirta explained.

“During a time where people are questioning the value of a degree, we need to tell people and show people the value of a degree” at Ferrum, she said.

Roanoke College plans to make a similar move to four schools for the start of the 2025 academic year. Kathy Wolfe, vice president of academic affairs, said in a statement Thursday that the change is “designed to foster more interdisciplinary collaboration within our academic departments.”

Reorganizing academic departments is “a fairly common contemporary practice,” said Brian puss*r, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development. Doing so can increase efficiency and collaboration across disciplines and give a school the chance to “rebrand their curricula,” he said.

But he warned, “Absent concurrent cost-cutting, reorganization doesn’t necessarily impact the bottom line.”

The University of Lynchburg accepted 96% of applications submitted for fall 2022, though only about 13% of those students who were admitted decided to enroll, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

The elimination of performing arts programs came as a shock to University of Lynchburg alumna Brianna Yancey. “I don’t think anybody saw this coming,” she said.

She learned of the changes Thursday when someone texted the group chat she’s in with recent theater program alumni and current students: “Rest in peace Lynchburg theatre.”

She was one out of only about five theater graduates in 2022, but she described the theater and music programs as “very healthy” and deeply integrated into life at Lynchburg.

She worries for the students who are left in these programs as they get phased out. The university plans to partner with local arts organizations, including the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra and Wolfbane Theater Productions, in a “performing arts consortium” that will offer students opportunities to perform. Bradley said details of the consortium “are still fluid,” but said a current member of the music faculty will be named to lead it.

“When I picked Lynchburg … a lot of what drew me in was the performing arts,” Yancey said. She said without it, Lynchburg won’t feel like the liberal arts college the area native chose to attend. “It feels like it’s going toward a STEM college.” That’s fine, she said, but it’s not what she thinks the small school was originally meant to be.

“That huge piece of me is no longer going to exist on campus.”

Though small colleges may have once had the enrollment and revenue to offer a wide variety of majors, they’re now responding to changing demands, and in some cases narrowing their focus.

“The fundamental argument for offering any major in a nonprofit college is its contribution to the college’s mission,” puss*r explained. “For several decades, due to declining revenue many liberal arts universities have been increasingly unable to sustain an earlier vision of what they felt was needed to fulfill their missions.”

But balancing consumer demand and revenue concerns with the college’s mission can be a challenge, he said.

At Lynchburg, the school’s literature maintains that undergraduate studies are “grounded in the liberal arts.” But that phrase is no longer part of the official mission statement that was revamped this spring.

Gone also from that mission statement are references to the school’s founding under the Christian Church.

“We evolved from a small liberal arts college to a comprehensive university,” Lynchburg’s website says.

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University of Lynchburg to cut 17 programs, dozens of faculty and staff positions (2024)
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