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Spare the Change

March 6, 2012

Liz Baudler wishes it were fiction.

But Columbia College Chicago’s proposal to combine its fiction writing department with parts of the English department, one of several efforts to improve efficiency and save money at the artsy institution, is all too real.

With enrollment shrinking, Columbia administrators undertook a “prioritization” campaign that, if adopted, would expand some departments while condensing, consolidating or eliminating others. Many of the changes are in the arts and culture fields for which the college is known.

In a single-spaced, 20-page set of recommendations released internally last month and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the interim provost, Louise Love, evaluated each department, degree program, college-sponsored center and many administrative posts.

The proposal asks the college to increase resources for in-demand majors like journalism and fashion design while keeping finances steady for some programs and slashing money for others. A final decision about the plan is expected this summer.

In the meantime, students and faculty members have come out against the plan, saying it overreaches and threatens to erode the 12,000-student liberal arts college’s unique identity as a media and arts institution. Baudler, a senior studying fiction writing, has organized protests of the plan, including a joint protest with the Occupy movement last week.

Students in her major are especially angry that their department chair will return to the faculty at the end of the semester after leading the fiction writing program for 15 years. She suspects his removal is related to the restructuring and signals a larger disconnect between administrators and the rest of the college. Love praised the fiction department chair’s service but didn’t elaborate on why the college elected not to renew his three-year contract, which expires this semester.

“The manner these cuts are being made just doesn’t look very good,” Baudler said. “It sort of makes us feel like we really aren’t important or special and that the place we came to isn’t what it once was.”

But Love, who started the prioritization program after reading Robert C. Dickeson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance (Jossey-Bass), said the critical look at the college’s programs was necessary. In order to succeed, the book argues, colleges must be willing to capitalize on natural efficiencies while pruning ineffective programs or those only tangentially related to an institution's mission.

Love said some Columbia-funded projects – including a center for women’s and gender studies, a professional jazz ensemble and a center for the study of black music – are successful but not central to the college’s mission. The report proposes eliminating all three.

Some academic programs make more sense together, the report argues, or need to be modernized. It suggests combining the dance department with the department of dance, movement therapy and counseling. Programs in radio and television would be combined in a new Internet media production department. In all, five new departments will form if the recommendations are adopted.

The report has kind words for many of the programs it proposes cutting or restructuring, including the “renowned” black music center and the “vibrant” fiction program.

Other programs facing fewer changes receive harsher critiques of how they fit into Columbia’s focus as a media and arts college. “Education is currently a costly program with not-always-apparent connection to the college’s core mission,” the report reads, and must improve its efficiency and redouble its efforts to train “teaching artists.”

The “costly” American Sign Language and English interpretation department prompts similar concerns about being “not centrally aligned” with Columbia’s mission. While the initial plan was to phase it out, the proposal now recommends giving the department a chance to reduce its losses by increasing class sizes and instituting other efficiency measures.

The report’s focus on business principles like efficiency and cost are among the reasons people on campus are concerned, said John Stevenson, an adjunct professor of philosophy at the college for 20 years. “I see this as part of a corporatization process as a business model used for education,” he said, “which I think is a very bad model.”

He understands the college has to pay its bills, but wonders why the cuts are so drastic and, he believes, so central to the college’s core when the institution claims to not be in a budget crisis.

But with enrollment receding and tuition increasing, administrators said, Columbia needed to do some soul-searching. The college enrolled 11,922 students in 2010, down more than 500 from its peak in 2008.

“We’re in an environment where we do not wish to accelerate student expenses any more than we need to,” said Anne Foley, vice president of planning and compliance. “A big part of our objectives for this is ... reallocation.”

The current proposal was created by the provost’s office after every department and center on campus submitted information about its activities. Love held a “listening session” on campus Monday and will have a chance to change her recommendations. Faculty and staff committees will also weigh in before a final decision is made this summer.

The protest movement, which includes a growing Facebook page open to Columbia students, isn’t against change itself. Baudler and Stevenson agreed some proposals might be valid, but worried faculty and students didn’t have enough say and that wholesale restructuring could dilute Columbia’s culture and perhaps accelerate the college’s declining enrollment. “Change is good,” Baudler said. “But they’re not going about it the right way.”

Losing a standalone fiction writing program, a culture studies major and the music and gender studies centers could take a collective toll on the campus even if they look like good ideas on paper, Baudler said. “Columbia is not like any other school,” she said, “I think we’d lose a lot of prospective students who are aware of Columbia’s unique identity and students who are here already would feel very disheartened.”

But Love, the interim provost, said recalibrating academic programs doesn’t mean losing what Columbia stands for. She sees it as a chance to improve the college and put it on more solid financial footing. “Organizations evolve constantly,” she said.

 

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