Processes and Models for Class Section Cuts

Phil Smith, Los Rios CCD Senate President

Given the emphasis on budgeting and planning in our accreditation standards, our colleges and districts have developed detailed planning processes including department- and division-level plans, college-wide master plans, and district-wide strategic plans as well as regular cycles of program review. And yet, in this time of deep budget contraction, I’m finding that many of our planning and program review processes seem woefully inadequate for helping us decide how to reduce our curricular offerings. Our existing planning processes simply don’t offer much specific guidance about which courses and programs to keep and which to let go.

Embedded in regular planning processes is the assumption that colleges increase or decrease in size only slightly from year to year. It’s true that colleges and universities are slow moving organizations, and, typically, trends in enrollment appear over long periods of time. So, it’s reasonable to expect that annual changes in college growth or shrinkage will be relatively modest during “normal” budget years. When faced with a sudden, sharp budget reduction, however, colleges need a different kind of plan altogether. As local budgets take a nosedive, what should we do when we need to act quickly and the consequences for getting it wrong are significant? We need a type of plan that helps us prepare for and navigate extreme budget circumstances, much like disaster preparedness plans offer guidance during flu outbreaks, fires, and floods. What our colleges need are budget disaster survival plans.

Research in disaster preparedness tells us that survival is more likely and injuries are reduced when institutions have specific and detailed plans to address disasters before they happen. Of course, dealing with college budget cuts is not as immediate, dire, and life-threatening as having to deal with natural disasters like tornados, earthquakes, or tsunamis, but budget cuts do challenge our livelihoods and the way we operate as educational institutions. Preparing for the worst case allows us to be proactive rather than reactive during times of emergency.

The focus of this article is to explore some principles and methods that can be used by local senates and college administrations to plan for large numbers of class section cuts. The process can roughly be divided into three stages: (1) awareness and understanding of the severity of the problem, (2) making priorities explicit, and (3) ethical and transparent negotiation.

Stage 1: Awareness
In the awareness stage, it’s extremely important that those individuals who are developing a disaster preparedness plan acknowledge the reality of a worst-case budget contraction. Psychology research tells us that human beings have difficulty accepting new information that runs counter to established worldviews. Many of us have had long careers at our colleges in which we’ve never experienced a severe budget contraction. It is easy to fall into habits of denial (“This is a manufactured crisis. Our district has plenty of money.”) or minimalism (“We just need to get through this year and things will be better next year.”). Remember that, in trying to develop a budget disaster preparedness plan, the goal is to plan for the worst-case scenario, not because it’s likely but because it’s possible. And, by preparing for the worst, we simultaneously prepare ourselves for the continuum of negative scenarios that are bad but not the worst.

Also, at the awareness stage, it’s hard to let go of negotiating strategies that worked during normal budget years. There is a belief that one can come out of the budget reduction process unscathed with an effective lobbying effort. The reality, in a sharp or protracted budget contraction, is that we are all participating in a less-than-zero-sum game, meaning that there really are no winners. All parts of the organization are going to lose something, and some parts are going to lose more than others. In developing a worst-case preparedness plan, it does no one any good to sugarcoat this reality.

Regular and thorough communication, a core value of the academic senate, serves us well in the awareness stage. Without such communication, rumors about the budget situation proliferate, promoting needless anxiety and detracting from effective planning. To combat budgetary rumors, it may make more sense to avoid informal, oral discussion styles in favor of formal, written communications that can be referred to when colleagues ask questions about the planning process. Written emails and documents also promote transparency and accountability.

Stage 2: Being Explicit About Priorities
The next stage in developing a budget disaster plan is to make departmental and institutional priorities explicit. Individuals and institutions have preferences about what is important and maintain a rough set of priorities about what is core to the institution’s mission. Granted, these preferences and priorities are typically implicit, perhaps even unconscious, yet they begin to manifest themselves during a time of budget cuts. It is far better for colleges and districts to be explicit about their preferences early, well before budget cutting begins. This allows for rational discussion and dialogue and the development of a consensus set of priorities. As an added benefit, explicit prioritization criteria allow us to explain how budget-cutting choices were made to members of the community and to the press. An example of a hypothetical set of class prioritization criteria is given below:

Please use the criteria below in the given order when prioritizing class section offerings. The criteria below should be applied in the given order:

  1. Maintain a comprehensive range of class section offerings during the day from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and the early evening 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
  2. Maintain courses in the two transfer-based general education patterns: IGETC and CSU GE Breadth.
  3. Maintain at least one section of each class that is a required course in the new SB1440 Transfer Degrees.
  4. Maintain courses in the college’s local AA/AS general education pattern.
  5. Maintain at least one class section that is a required course in the 20 most popular degrees or certificates at the college.
  6. Maintain a class section that is a restricted elective in the 20 most popular degrees or certificates at the college.
  7. Maintain basic skills sections in mathematics, writing, and reading that meet the competency requirement for an associate degree.
  8. Maintain a ratio of 10-30-60 for low, middle, and high basic skills offerings.
  9. Maintain at least one class section for any required course in any degree or certificate at the college.
  10. Maintain a class section for any course that is a restricted elective in any degree or certificate at the college.
  11. Maintain other departmental priorities not included above.

Stage 3: Ethical and Transparent Negotiation about Class Cuts — Models for Consideration
The next stage in the development of a disaster plan for class section cuts is to determine in a transparent and ethical way which specific class sections to cut in the event of a severe budget crunch. There are at least three models for making cuts after departments have a made a good faith effort to prioritize their offerings from the most to least essential.

In the first model, Share and Share Alike, each college department (or division) is asked to make an equal cut, say 10%, to its offerings. This model is easily understood and implemented; however, it takes into account only departmental or divisional priorities, not the priorities of the college as a whole. From a student success point of view, are the class offerings in one department more necessary for degree or certificate completion than those in another? If so, across-the-board cuts may actually hurt the students we serve.

On the surface, this model appears to be the most fair, but in a severe budget crunch proportionate cuts may actually do harm. Consider a hospital that is facing a 10% budget cut. The 10% could be spread equally across all of its departments, but is it really serving the needs of the community if the Emergency, Dermatology, and Physical Therapy departments are all cut by an equal amount of 10%? The health of the community members might be better served by having the Emergency Room take less of a cut and the Dermatology and Physical Therapy departments taking larger hits.

In the second model, Top-Down Disproportionate Cuts, a college-wide group determines a priori different levels of cuts for each department. The goal in setting targets in advance is to better meet student needs for the college as a whole. One department might be asked to cut only 1% while another is asked to reduce by 25%. The target-setting group tries to ensure that the individual departmental reductions balance out to an overall college reduction goal, say 10%. After targets are established, each department is notified of the percentage by which it should reduce its offerings.

The challenge for senates in this model is how to maintain transparency. Who serves on this group that is making these decisions? Does it consist only of administrators? How does this group go about determining in advance which departments should be cut more than others? Is this group using explicit criteria and data, or are the disproportionate percentages assigned to each department being made by someone’s “gut instinct”?

In the first two models, the focus is on achieving a particular percentage cut. This approach may work well in a short-lived budget crunch in which the monetary reduction to the institution can reasonably be predicted. If, however, a college is experiencing a budget crunch that is volatile or one that spans several years, then it will be necessary for the college to seek further cuts as new fiscal circumstances warrant. Going back to faculty over and over again and asking for additional cuts can be demoralizing. It’s a slow “death by a thousand cuts,” anxiety about the future is never alleviated, and colleagues begin to give up and shut down.

In the third model, the focus is not on class section cuts but class section keeps. It’s more of triage model in which the institution focuses not on what should be let go but what should be maintained. Leaders focus on identifying the absolute core group of class sections necessary to maintain the functionality of the college for the community and commit to protecting it. This commitment carves out a “safe harbor” in which faculty and students can plan schedules with a reasonable degree of security.

To accomplish the third model, Bottom-Up Disproportionate Keeps, colleges and districts must first identify a worst-case scenario dividing line. By this, I mean a core value or criterion that departments may use to separate their absolutely essential class sections from those that are not. The worst-case scenario dividing line will likely vary from institution to institution. For example, one college might say that class sections needed to support the top 20 degrees and certificates are “safe” and above the dividing line, and all other class sections have the potential to be cut. Another district might say that its core value and intent is to prevent full-timer layoffs. With that criterion in mind, each department lists enough class sections (in order from most to least essential) so that each of its full-timers can maintain a full load. Once that dividing line is established, those class sections taught as overload assignments or by adjuncts would potentially be cut.

Once the dividing line is established and departments identify those class sections that fall on either side of it, the class sections on the potentially cut side are collected from departments and put into a common “bucket” for review and prioritization by some college-wide group. Once prioritized, this list of potential class sections cuts can accommodate a variety of cut levels and can be used for planning across multiple years.

In this model, because the college is prioritizing everything, senates should be aware that the initial workload is quite high; however, it pays dividends if the budget situation is changing rapidly or the budget crisis is prolonged. As with the previous model, senates must be vigilant about transparency with the college-wide group that prioritizes potential cuts. It’s particularly important to safeguard against the perception of personal bias. Those on the college-wide group who might benefit from a particular prioritization should acknowledge that fact and recuse themselves from decisions that they have a stake in.


Although existing planning procedures and program review documents may offer only limited guidance to our colleges during this time of budget crunch, it is possible for academic senates to organize effective discussions and decision-making about how to reduce class offerings. This article offers a series of approaches, models, and cautions that might be useful to local senates that begin this challenging work. A specific plan that is thoughtful, thorough, and proactive will help all of us survive these difficult budgetary times.

Phil Smith is completing the second year of his term as Los Rios Community College District Academic Senate President.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.