Edgar Allen Poe’s statue at the University of Baltimore. Photo by jpellgen, via Flickr.
Edgar Allen Poe’s statue at the University of Baltimore. Photo by jpellgen, via Flickr.

What happens when a college evaluates academic programs like they’re investment opportunities? Apparently it loses its history and philosophy departments, in a scenario for the University of Baltimore.

Fortunately this outcome was only fictional at the University of Baltimore last month. According to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, top administrators there in December asked the deans and associate deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business and the School of Law to evaluate the value of their programs, and then present them like pieces of a portfolio to a “Shark Tank”-style panel of university brass with $1 million in fake money to invest.

On the popular ABC Show, celebrity investors Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary and other big personalities hear pitches from enthusiastic entrepreneurs. The winners make out big with financial backing and lots of hype, but the losers (a group that now includes former Raven Justin Forsett, who appeared on the show on Sunday) are rejected for an array of reasons. It’s an ideally simplistic recipe for a capitalist reality TV show.

But the scenario was pretty scary to faculty at UB, particularly since the school has reportedly been stuck with flat enrollment for the last decade, has recently cut hundreds of employees’ salaries and, according to The Chronicle’s reporting, is hoping to trim some $2 million from its budget in the next two months.

Communications professor Stephanie Gibson wasn’t at the retreat, but learned about the game beforehand and found “Shark Tank” to be an odd comparison to the university’s academic budgeting process. “That metaphor doesn’t leave a lot of room for collegial activity,” she told the D.C.-based higher ed newspaper.

Deborah Kohl, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, participated in the retreat, and undertook some prep work with the dean of her school, Christine S. Spencer, by watching “Shark Tank.” She wasn’t pleased.

“We were magnificently insulted that we were being asked to approach such a serious set of issues in that particular reality-TV way,” Kohl said, according to the report.

As it turned out, their analysis determined they would axe UB’s history and philosophy programs, and would have to reconfigure the English and environmental science departments.

Provost and executive vice president Darlene Brannigan Smith defended the idea to The Chronicle as a way to challenge each school’s leaders to reconsider their academic offerings in a financial light: “The Shark Tank mentality was to sit there and say, ‘OK, now is the rest of the leadership team, do they agree that we as an institution should be investing here?’”

University of Baltimore spokesman Chris Hart told Baltimore Fishbowl on Tuesday that the game “was designed to get people to think in new ways about their programs and the schools, the whole academic endeavor, from an investor’s perspective.”

The goal, he said, was to get school leaders to consider their program offerings in light of the school’s ongoing financial difficulties — “what are we delivering, is it relatable, is it useful to graduates?” However, “it was taken to mean some kind of competition, and we didn’t intend that at all.”

But ultimately, administrators nixed the game halfway through their retreat due to some of the concerns that emerged. If given a chance to do the retreat again – with or without the “Shark Tank” game — Smith said she “would easily eliminate it” from the lineup.

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...