Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Columbia Union shifting to ‘three-school’ model

Several majors would be dropped; president says move intended to capitalize on health care opportunities

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Officials at Columbia Union College last week announced plans to change the list of majors the school offers as part of an overall effort to reorganize the Adventist college into three separate schools for different areas of study, changes they say may affect current faculty.

Columbia Union president Weymouth Spence said the college also will begin planning for the construction of a new building on the Takoma Park campus that will house health and wellness programs and a student activities center.

The college still hopes to build a long-discussed performing arts center, but those plans have been delayed while the college continues to search for a donor willing to match $2.5 million in state grants set aside for that project, Spence said.

Beginning in July, Columbia Union’s new ‘‘three-school model” will consist of a School of Graduate and Professional Studies, a School of Health Professions and Wellness, and a School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Under the new system, the college will no longer offer several majors, including media studies and entrepreneurship, which officials say have had low enrollment. The college also will add several new courses, including forensic psychology and radiography.

Spence, who took office in January, said students enrolled in the affected majors will be allowed to finish their studies. He said the college has yet to determine how many courses will be eliminated or how many faculty members will be affected.

‘‘Any faculty who have been displaced, we will retain that faculty until the major is discontinued,” he said. ‘‘... It may affect faculty in the sense that they may switch from department to department.”

Some worry that the move is a sign that the school is moving away from its liberal arts roots. Two years ago, the college’s board of trustees considered changing the college into a health science institution as part of a way to reduce its then $5 million debt.

Josef Kruger, the student association president at the time and a current senior, said the most recent proposal appears to have the same goal.

‘‘I think that the administration and the board are hiding behind a new public relations concept that they call this three-school model,” Kruger said, ‘‘when in reality they are using this cover to lean more toward a health care aspect in order to go toward a market-driven curriculum instead of education and liberal arts curriculum. ... I don’t think the school will ever be the same again.”

Spence said although most courses being eliminated are in liberal arts fields and those being added are in health sciences, the move should not be interpreted as an effort to end liberal arts at Columbia Union.

‘‘We are creating an entire arts and social science liberal arts school,” he said. ‘‘We deliberately did that to avoid any conclusion as such that liberal arts are being eliminated.”

Last year, the college entered negotiations to sell its Christian-music radio station, WGTS, as another way to relieve its debt, but rescinded an offer for upwards of $20 million after a barrage of protests from listeners, alumni and trustees.

Spence’s proposed budget for 2008-2009 is almost $18 million, about $750,000 less than the current budget. The school remains in debt, he said, and will not raise tuition next year or substantially increase enrollment.

Spence, who has previously worked with health care-focused colleges, said the proposed health and science building will allow the college to capitalize on growing opportunities in the health care field. He said he has been talking to officials at local health care organizations, including neighboring Washington Adventist Hospital, in the hopes of creating partnerships.

David Miller, chairman of Columbia Union’s communications department, which officials have said will be targeted by upcoming changes, said Friday he had not been told specifically what those changes will be.

‘‘Of course we are disappointed, but the enrollment figures weren’t in our favor,” he said. ‘‘There was a sense among my colleagues that it was inevitable.”