Journalism Program on the Chopping Block at Northwest College
Stefani Hicswa, president of Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., will recommend the elimination of the school’s journalism, film, radio, television and farrier business management programs to the Board of Trustees at trustees’ monthly meeting on Monday.
Critics say the elimination of those programs is more of a retaliation against a problematic student newspaper than a move to align budgets with decreasing revenue.
Rob Breeding, instructor of journalism at Northwest College and advisor to the student newspaper, is one of three faculty members who stand to lose their jobs if the Board of Trustees approves Hicswa’s recommendation.
Breeding believes the administration has finally found a way to get rid of him – after, as Breeding says, penalizing him for stories run in the Northwest Trail – as well as the journalism program and the student paper itself, which has been criticized for examining controversial issues on campus in stories that occasionally cast the NWC administration in a poor light.
“The students on the Northwest Trail have been doing their job,” says Breeding. “They have been holding people of authority at the campus accountable for their actions.”
The most recent example of the strife between the newspaper and administrators stems from an incident in the fall of 2015 incident in which a criminal justice instructor left a handgun in a backpack in a NWC classroom. According to an editorial by a managing editor at the Northwest Trail, the student body had not been formally notified even several weeks after the incident.
The story was carried by the Associated Press and received national attention.
“That was a story that the students literally had to pull out of the administration,” says Breeding. “It took [the newspaper staff] all day to get [administrators] to admit to a story that everybody on campus already knew about.”
“We’ve been in a situation now for a couple of months where many of the administrators… won’t even talk to the students on the student newspaper,” says Breeding. “They’ll only respond via email and have treated those students, I think, very unfairly.”
Breeding went on to say he believes it’s a pattern that has been in place for several years, and Northwest College administrators are not alone in how they interact with the student press.
“And it’s not as though this is some new thing, that we haven’t seen this before at colleges,” says Breeding. “It’s common that administrations deal with having free press on campus in this very unfortunate way, by essentially trying to end it.”
Vice President for College Relations Mark Kitchen said in an email Friday the president’s recommendations stem from “impending imbalance between cost of operation and expected revenue,” and he believes all Wyoming community colleges are taking similar steps to cut budgets.
According to Kitchen’s email, Hicswa said the programs in question would be “taught out” so second-year students can finish.
“She added that her intentions are to retain the student newspaper, the Northwest Trail, assuming students remain interested in doing so,” Kitchen wrote. “At this early stage, no decisions have been made about how or by whom the newspaper would be advised.”
One option would be to run the newspaper as a club. But Ron Feemster, one of Breeding’s predecessors, says a club run by 18- and 19-year-olds who come in with no experience stands little chance of succeeding.
“At Northwest, I think you need a faculty advisor. And I think you need a faculty advisor who has the qualifications that the college require from someone who teaches journalism,” says Feemster, who was the journalism instructor and student paper advisor from 2008 to 2010, when his contract was not renewed.
He says he was let go because the Northwest Trail was a thorn in the side of the administration and the higher-ups wanted him gone. Although he is convinced that the paper is a vital part of Northwest College and should be preserved, Feemster also acknowledges journalism is a small-enrollment program at the school, and therefore a target for budget cuts.
“It’s very labor-intensive to teach journalism,” says Feemster. “You can’t have a high student-faculty ratio and do that kind of work. So if you’re targeting programs that have high cost per graduate… journalism is a good one to cut, if it’s just a quantitative measure.”
“I think what they don’t see is how important it is to Wyoming and to journalism to get kids from small towns in Wyoming who are much more conservative and probably much closer to the land than the typical urban students who study journalism and who dominate the newsrooms around the country,” says Feemster. “You need to get these kids into journalism, and it’s the only way that a working-class kid from Wyoming has to enter the profession. They’re not likely to go to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.”
In the comments section of a relevant article on InsideHigherEd.com, Feemster writes “the paper (The Trail) and the journalism department have an outsized impact… Trail alums from small Wyoming towns sit in newsrooms with city folks who can barely tell Wyoming from Colorado on the map.”
“The school needs to pony up what it costs to give students like this the tools to make it in the larger world of journalism,” Feemster writes.
Kitchen says Northwest College plans to cut $2.3 million from its operating fund of about $22.5 million. In a May 3 letter, Hicswa tells the Board of Trustees “anticipated expenditures for personnel considered together with those for non-personnel are estimated to exceed projected revenue by $3.5M,” leading to her recommendation that the Board invoke the college’s Reduction in Force policy for two classified instructional staff in Extended Campus and the Life and Health Sciences Division, one classified staff member in College Relations, and one classified staff member in Residence Life.
According to another letter from Hicswa to the Board of Trustees, also dated May 3, division chairs endorsed five criteria for considering which programs to discontinue. Listed in order of importance, the criteria are: cost versus revenue, the trend in the number of program majors, job prospects, opportunities for other funding sources, and role as a community keystone.
Attached to the letter is an undated program sustainability analysis of nine programs conducted by Vice President of Academic Affairs Gerald Giraud, Finance Director Bradley Bowen, Registrar Brad Hammond and Institutional Researcher Lisa Smith. In examining the data included in that report, monetary gain or loss over the last fiscal year was the pivotal factor in the group’s recommendation to cut the journalism, radio, film, TV and farrier business management programs.
In fact, “because this study is conducted in the context of the need to reduce expenditures relative to revenue, assigning a monetary value to all criteria seems logical. However, assigning monetary value to community connections is difficult,” the analysis reads.
According to 2015-16 data, the three programs combined cost the college over $114,000. Other programs in the analysis that lost money in that period were equine studies and athletic training, combining for a loss of $2,703.
Farrier business management ranked last or second-to-last in each portion of the analysis. While the journalism, film, radio and television programs on average ranked better, the trends of active program majors indicate consistently few active majors in those programs. Journalism saw 14 active majors in the fall of 2011; that number was cut in half by the fall of 2013 and rebounded slightly to 10 in spring 2016. Film, radio and TV saw a total of 13 active majors in the fall of 2011, a figure that peaked at 16 in fall 2013 before dropping to 12 in spring 2016.
By comparison, equine studies -- which lost $87 in 2015-2016 -- saw 37 active majors in fall 2011 and 27 active majors in spring 2016. Athletic training saw a loss of $2,616 in 2015-2016 and had 29 active majors in fall 2011, but only 13 in spring 2016; drafting technology brought a $30,788 gain to the college in 2015-2016, while the number of active majors in the program dwindled from 29 in fall 2011 to 15 this spring.
From fall 2011 to spring 2016, overall enrollment at Northwest College decreased from roughly 2,100 to about 1,800, according to data provided in the analysis.
It’s important to note the analysis includes seven programs that each have only one faculty member who has specific content qualification and whose course load is concentrated in the specific program content. In addition, “the selected programs can be considered peripheral to the core academic structure of the college,” according to the analysis.
Seven programs were initially selected for analysis, but equine studies and aeronautics were added “because they are frequently mentioned by members of the college community as questionable in terms of fiscal sustainability. These two programs fit the criteria of peripheral to the core academic structure of the college, but equine studies involves multiple faculty and aeronautics is staffed by adjunct faculty,” according to the analysis.
The TV, film and radio programs all share one faculty advisor, while the journalism and farrier business management programs each have their own faculty advisor.
State agency budgets were slashed in the 2017-2018 biennium budget bill. On April 22, Governor Matt Mead directed all state agencies to cut budgets by another 8 percent for fiscal year 2017. In an email on Friday, Kitchen said “this latest round of reductions is estimated to result in a loss of an additional $1.6M for Northwest College.”