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Hub for Older Students Fears Its End

August 31, 2007

Over the past five years, the department of interdisciplinary studies has moved from school to school within Wayne State University. Soon, it may find a permanent resting place.

The budget and finance committee of Wayne State’s Board of Governors has approved a cost-cutting package that calls for, among other things, the elimination of the department. The measure must pass a full board vote next week.

Beyond being the center for collaborative teaching on campus, the department has seen as its role making college more accessible to many of Detroit's traditionally underserved, older students who had dropped or stopped out. Nearly all of the roughly 700 undergraduates and 50 graduate students housed in the interdisciplinary program are over 21 -- and many are in their 30s and 40s. Most are enrolled part time, roughly two-thirds are black and the majority are female, according to Roslyn Schindler, chair of the department.

With news of the potential closure comes a disagreement over whether those students will be adversely affected. Some inside the department say the move would greatly decrease the likelihood of adult learners coming to Wayne State and finishing their degrees.

“We are a cohesive undergraduate and master’s learning community, tailored specifically to adult students – an important group in our city,” Schindler said. “While there are adult students everywhere on campus, our department gives them the opportunity to go back into a college environment that's nurturing and supportive. They aren’t thrown out into the entire university to fend for themselves."

The department offers evening courses for students who work and Web-based classes for students with families. It runs seminars for those re-entering college or starting after a long break from education, and makes available advisers to help with the transition. Several students and recent graduates explain the importance of saving the department on its Web site, and a petition is also circulating.

It's unclear what would happen to the department immediately if the plan goes through. Schindler said without this structure in place, she expects up to half of the students enrolled to eventually transfer out. Not so, according to Nancy Barrett, Wayne State's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. She said the potential changes would lead to cuts in the administrative structure but not in instruction or help for students.

Night classes operate throughout the campus, Barrett said, and 14,000 of the 32,000 students at Wayne State attend part time. The advisers in interdisciplinary studies -- along with more than two dozen faculty and staff -- would stay at the institution and move into other departments. Many of the same classes would be offered in different colleges. While the degrees in interdisciplinary studies would be terminated, students would most likely be able to choose from other degrees that were in effect at the time of their admission.

Still, Schindler said some faculty wouldn't fit neatly into an existing department and some courses would find no home. For instance, she's doubtful that an introduction to academic writing class she teaches to those re-entering the university would find a place elsewhere.

Barrett said the potential move is part of cost cutting happening across campus -- necessitated by a state budget crisis that's forcing Wayne State to eliminate millions in spending. The university estimates that it will save $220,000 in administrative costs by shuttering the department.

In an effort to keep tuition down, the university decided to eliminate what it deemed duplicative programs. Interdisciplinary study can be found throughout the institution, according to Barrett, and students can get this degree program without having a department.

But those within interdisciplinary studies say the type of education it offers isn't the same as what's offered outside, and that budgetary savings could have come without killing the department.

While news of the potential closure surprised some in the department, there have been no shortage of major changes announced over the past several years. Interdisciplinary studies had been under the umbrella of Wayne State's lifelong learning college until it was dissolved in 2002. The department then moved to the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs, which was shut in 2005 (again for budgetary reasons, the university said). Since then, the College and Liberal Arts and Science has been the department's home.

At the time of the urban college's closure, critics of the university's move said it symbolized a national trend of universities disengaging from low-income students. The college offered advising and academic programs for minority students, first-generation students, those holding full-time jobs and those who had dropped out of college years ago.

Bill Lynch, an associate professor in the science and technology division of the department of interdisciplinary students, said he has long noticed antipathy toward the program.

"There's an impression out there that we are giving a second-rate education to those who don't deserve it," he said. "Some don't like us because we teach part-time students who might not otherwise have a chance to be at the university. But what you're dealing with is a breakdown in the public schools. Some students might have been disheartened by the experience and gotten lousy grades. This is a chance to find their way."

Lynch said that while Wayne State has looked to attract traditional-age students and those from out of state, its commitment to older students has wavered.

Barrett disagrees. “The whole university is committed to a diverse student body, and that includes adults," she said. "It has been tough going with budget cuts, but accessibility continues to be important to us."

 

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