There comes a time in the life of an academic program when it is no longer viable due to dropping enrollments, lack of faculty resources, budget cuts, changing external contexts, or other factors. When the decision is made to close a program, the department chair’s attention to planning will be vital. You will need to plan a timeline for action to make sure that your institution’s related services are synchronized with the program closure and that others affected by the closure are not caught off guard. More important, you will want to ensure that current students are not left adrift when faculty turn their attention to new programs.

Here are some tips for department chairs closing graduate programs.

Determine the institution’s processes for closing programs

  • Closing programs is not done so often that it is routine in any college, so you may have to do some sleuthing to find out what approvals are needed for closure. If you aren’t familiar with the program’s history, you will want to ask about that so you understand the political import that the closure decision may have.
  • Prepare any necessary documentation and observe institutional timelines. At my institution, departments can close admissions to a program, but Board of Regents’ approval is required for disestablishing programs, and there is one time each year when these types of academic requests are made.
  • Be prepared to answer questions about why the program is closing. Faculty devoted to the program may insist that increased marketing will resolve the low enrollment problem or may have other solutions that they advocate to resolve issues. It is important to be respectful of their advocacy—after all, they might have spent years working to make the program successful. This commitment could make it difficult for them to acknowledge the importance of other factors that are considered in program closings.

Closing admissions is the first step to managing the program closure.

  • Determine how to handle any students in process for admission. Will you refund application fees for applications in process, or for those admitted but not yet matriculating? Who will communicate with these students, and is it possible to advise them into other related programs?
  • Meet with the marketing and communications people to make sure the website is updated to show that applications are not being accepted at this time. In consideration of current students, do not take the program off the website—this creates anxiety and makes it appear their degrees are no longer supported. Update print materials and make sure that anyone who answers questions from students has updated information, including academic advisors and faculty.

Know your students and communicate with them

  • Plan how you will finish students in the program. The closer they are to graduating, the easier this is. For students who have just started, it is helpful to give them a clear class schedule through completion and tell them how their culminating projects (theses, action research, etc.) will be handled.
  • Communicate with students actively enrolled in the program. Let them know that the program is being changed (or discontinued) but that the department is committed to helping them finish their degrees. Provide the information about degree completion, give them a contact person in the department who can answer questions, and if possible, hold a meeting with them.
  • Check out the institutional policies and practices to determine how legacy students are treated. At my university, students have six years from the date of the first enrollment to finish a master’s degree, so even if they haven’t been actively enrolled for a year, we have some obligations to them. Therefore, we try to find out who these students are and communicate with them about their options and give them a firm date by which they must let us know if they are returning.

Plan the class schedule

As soon as possible, determine when and where you will offer the classes that enrolled students need to finish their programs. Communicate the schedule to students and let them know what will happen if they do not enroll in the classes. For example, you might say, “We are offering EDP 555 next fall on Monday nights for the last time. If you cannot take this required class for your degree, you may substitute EDP 556. If you cannot take either class before December 31, 2015, you will need to transfer to another degree program.”

Track progress

Keep records of the process you are following and when each step was completed. Save emails to students and colleagues so you can refer to them if necessary. The process will play out over time, and related issues will come up infrequently, so good records will provide important information when you need it.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on July 1, 2014 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Suzanne Painter is an associate professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.