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Shawn Wahl will be dean of the new Judith Enyeart Reynolds College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.
TAWNIE WILSON | SBJ
Shawn Wahl will be dean of the new Judith Enyeart Reynolds College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

MSU realignment begins July 1

University bucks trend of cutting programs to elevate profile nationally

Posted online

The new Judith Enyeart Reynolds College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, or RCASH, will be operational July 1 at Missouri State University.

A realignment of the university’s colleges was announced in December by President Clif Smart, and the biggest change is the combination of two existing colleges – the College of Arts and Letters, with seven academic departments, and the College of Humanities and Public Affairs, with eight departments – into RCASH.

Shawn Wahl, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, will lead the new college, while Victor Matthews, dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs, will retire.

“It was really time for us to take a look at what opportunities we had across academic colleges to transform and to place the university in line with higher education trends,” Wahl said.

The move followed a campuswide evaluation and relied on input from all university communities, including students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni and community members, Wahl said.

He added that changes were overdue, and the university chose to move during a position of strength.

“The university is stable,” he said. “Our leadership team, under President Smart, did a tremendous job on managing the pandemic response, and that obviously had budgetary and financial implications across industries, across the nation and across the world. But we really are fortunate to be in a position where we’re not cutting academic programs.”

Cutting programs, particularly liberal arts and humanities programs that attract few majors, is one national trend that MSU is not following. A few nearby examples, according to the Hechinger Report, which covers education, are Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, which recently eliminated majors, minors and concentrations in English, history, philosophy, sociology and art, among other subjects, and Henderson State University in Arkansas, which dumped 25 degree programs in disciplines like geography, studio art, public administration and Spanish.

Earlier this year, Marymount University in Virginia made headlines by eliminating majors in mathematics, sociology, theology, religious studies and six other programs with low enrollment, and the University of Alaska recently cut 39 academic departments, among them creative writing, chemistry and environmental science.

MSU’s realignment will help the university strengthen programs, according to Wahl.

“We’re looking at what we can do to protect academic programs that are really important to a four-year university,” Wahl said. “It’s about preserving the educational experience, even as we see the humanities being reduced and cut across campuses.”

One reason MSU can maintain, rather than cut, programs is stable enrollment. Spring 2023 enrollment was 21,793, down 580 students from pre-pandemic enrollment in spring 2019 of 22,373, according to the university.

“We’ve managed the enrollment challenge well,” Wahl said. “That’s not easy for any public institution, community college or private, but because we’ve managed things well, we’re able to say, ‘What can we do to protect the mission?’”

MSU touts a public affairs mission, and notably, the realignment plan eliminates public affairs from the name of the new college. Wahl said the decision was made to consciously emphasize public affairs throughout all colleges and programs, rather than enshrine it in a single college.

He said many MSU programs have national and regional profiles, and it was determined that substantial change was not needed.

“It goes to the old phrase, if it’s not broken, why hammer on it and try to fix it?” he said.

He added that there were opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of programs through restructuring, such as the addition of schools, a mostly new level of organization within the college. Only one of these, the School of Communication existed in the separate colleges before restructuring.

RCASH will consist of five schools: School of the Arts, School of Communication, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and School of Defense and Strategic Studies. Various departments will operate within each of these schools, and department heads will share responsibility for administration of the schools.

Some programs have shifted into new colleges under the realignment. For instance, economics will not move into RCASH from its former home in the College of Humanities and Public Affairs. Instead, it will move into the College of Business, according to Clif’s Notes, the blog of President Smart. Gerontology will move within RCASH from psychology to sociology and anthropology. World languages and cultures will combine with religious studies to form the department of languages, cultures and religion. And military science and ROTC will be housed in RCASH under the School of Defense and Strategic Studies.

When asked about the cost of the realignment, Wahl said it should save money through administrative efficiencies, like the elimination of a dean and the absorption of some department heads back into the regular faculty. Costs of new branding are considered nominal. Wahl did not have figures on the savings that are anticipated.

Destination campus
Smart noted in his June 13 blog post that the realignment will help shore up academic programs.

“The university will continue to protect and invest in all academic programs across the new college,” he said. “For instance, we’re exploring digital humanities labs and other instructional and facility innovations. RCASH will continue to invest in interdisciplinary undergraduate programs, too.”

Wahl said the arts are a high-profile part of MSU and will remain so, with three accredited art departments. Highlights include the Department of Music with its all-Steinway school, featuring 52 Steinway & Sons pianos. The Department of Art and Design operates out of the downtown Brick City location, one of the largest arts facilities in the region. And the Department of Theatre and Dance includes the new John Goodman Amphitheatre, a permanent home to the summer Tent Theatre series, now in its 61st season.

“The arts are dear to the history of Missouri State University, but they are also dear to the Ozarks – they’re coveted by the region and beyond,” Wahl said. “That’s part of the position of strength that the university is operating from.”

The university completed its Onward, Upward capital campaign in 2022, raising $270 million for improvements throughout the campus. Additionally, the renovation of Temple Hall into the Roy Blunt Hall in the College of Natural and Applied Sciences will leverage federal funds into the university.

Smart described MSU as a destination campus at a time when many universities are making cuts in programs that MSU is choosing to capitalize on.

“As a part of a public affairs institution, the college continues to invest in dynamic facilities and renovations to strengthen student and community connections and experiences in the arts, social sciences and humanities,” he said.

Jason Jolley, head of the Department of World Languages and Cultures, will be associate dean of RCASH on July 1. He acknowledged the changes brought by realignment are big ones.

“Folks are kind of not sure what to expect,” he said. “Departments have been operating for decades under their current formats, and each department has its own culture, its own processes.”

World languages and English, formerly two separate departments, are now merged, for instance, he said.

“We’re very different departments in so many ways,” Jolley said. “I know that thinking about blending those cultures, practices and policies is kind of overwhelming, but it’s exciting, too.”

The new alignment will allow new possibilities for collaboration, he said – not to mention for the survival of less-populated disciplines, like philosophy.

“In smaller institutions, they would just simply cut them,” Jolley said. “I’m happy that although realignment was a lot to absorb, at least in this new college, there’s a sincere effort to uplift and invest in humanities.”

He added that MSU wasn’t content to be another regional four-year university, comparable to other Missouri institutions like the University of Central Missouri or Missouri Southern State University. Instead, it sees its competition as Kansas State University, the University of Arkansas and Saint Louis University.

“We wanted to elevate its profile, and the next logical step is to have a bigger profile nationally,” Jolley said. “Missouri State is not content just to be a regional competitor. There’s a strategic plan, and growing nationally and even internationally is definitely in the plan.”

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