Word in this morning’s Chronicle is that Tulane University is entering a period of major restructuring as it attempts to reopen. This “renewal,” as the university calls it, includes the elimination of 233 professors (53 from academic departments and 180 from the medical school) and 14 doctoral programs (including economics, English, French, historical preservation, law, political science, sociology, water resources planning management, social work, and five programs in engineering). 26 of the 53 academic faculty being laid off have tenure, as do 39 of 180 medical faculty. This follows the layoff in October of 242 full-time staff members.

The decisions were made by the university’s president, Scott Cowen, in consultation with a group of seven external advisors (“Malcolm Gillis, a former president of Rice University and an economics professor there; William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president of Princeton University; James J. Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan; William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University; Eamon M. Kelly, a former president of Tulane; Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies; and Farris W. Womack, former chief financial officer at the University of Michigan”) and was “reviewed” by “an elected faculty advisory committee.” Cowen also apparently consulted with the American Association of University Professors in order to ensure that the processes he’d laid out were in compliance with the AAUP’s guidelines on terminating faculty members.

Of course, the Chronicle quotes chairs and faculty of departments that have not been cut as saying that the plan, while unfortunate, makes good sense. And perhaps it does. But there’s something in all of this that bodes ill for me, something beyond my complete lack of surprise that English and French are included among the doctoral programs to be eliminated, something beyond my continuing heartbreak at watching the city that I love more than any other implode. Tulane seems to me to be sketching out a roadmap of the future, not just for itself but for institutions nationwide, a Darwinian approach to institutional survival that allows its leadership to take the opportunity of devastation to do what it has longed to for some time:

“We basically cut the programs that were not the strongest,” he said. In a way, the hurricane prompted the university to make decisions it could not make before the storm hit. “Under the current way universities operate, you can’t make these decisions under normal circumstances,” he said. “It takes an event like this.”

None of my friends at Tulane are in the affected departments, but my heart goes out to them nonetheless — this promises to be a difficult, painful period for everyone there.


  1. For once, I don’t share your pessimism (on the large scale). I mean, look what’s getting axed, besides English, French, and historical preservation: Many of the fields are and will remain going concerns (medicine, engineering, law, water management). I have to take them at their word that these were weak (read: low pay-off) programs.

    Of course, I’ve only read the pap in the Chronicle.

    I will say this: We need to cut back on the number of PhDs we’re producing, for the health of the discipline. Cutting grad programs is an easier way of doing than persuading large schools not to rely on grad students for their teaching needs.

  2. I’m agreeing with Meg on this one. I think that cutting the PhD programs that they did will definitely strengthen both Tulane and (to a less measurable extent), the academic job market as a whole (since there will be fewer PhDs produced and some small number of teaching positions which will no longer be held by PhD students).

    On the other hand, to be laid off at that point in the academic career seems to be a rather devastating blow. It would seem awfully difficult to find a new full-time teaching position after being laid off at that point. I can’t even begin to imagine how I would react to that. Especially for those in disciplines which do not easily translate to non-academic positions.

    Flies eat live tigers.

  3. Don’t get me wrong; I agree that decisions were probably (at least partly) made based on the relative strength of programs, because otherwise they’d never have cut engineering, at all. Medicine, though, got cut because the teaching hospital got cut, and the teaching hospital got cut because they have no more patients. Because no one lives there anymore. So that’s a whole other issue.

    I also agree about the general overproduction of PhDs in the world, and agree that such overproduction is likely only to be curtailed by closing programs rather than scaling them back. But I remain skeptical about the university’s overall motives in closing down programs right now, and particularly in its decisions about laying off academic faculty. And I’m quite pessimistic about what this means for the long-term health of Tulane — because I don’t think that the cuts are going to stop there…

  4. A couple that we’re friends with were both English professors in N.O.–he tenured at Xavier, she a year away from tenure at Dillard. Both have had their jobs cut from their respective institutions, and are now faced with the daunting prospect of trying to find a pair of jobs in one geographic location. 🙁

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