Columbia College Chicago is known for strong arts programs. But in the last year, controversies surrounding a plan to merge some programs and cut funding for others have roiled the college, especially because many of the targets are arts programs. Also controversial is a call in the plan to tighten admissions standards. On Thursday, the college's board approved the program -- Focus 2016: Blueprint for Action  -- in a closed-door meeting.
For many, the dispute has also been about a sense that the administration isn’t listening to student or faculty leaders. At a spring forum on the changes, President Warrick Carter faced questions from skeptical, frustrated students (who noted that their tuition was increasing as programs were being cut), and told one of them to shut up. Video of the incident is seen by many as emblematic of the state of communication at the college.
Warren Chapman, senior vice president at the college, said in a brief interview Friday that, over the summer, administrators, the Faculty Senate, deans and others will figure out how to carry out the changes. Chapman said it was too early to tell if there would be staff cuts or layoffs. Over last Thursday and Friday, the college did not make senior officials available for a lengthy discussion of the plan.
Several of the changes involve merging noted arts programs, created at the college and operated as independent units, into large divisions of the college, with the goal of cutting costs.
Funding for the well-known Chicago Jazz Ensemble, based at the college, could be cut, and the ensemble and other groups such as the Center for Black Music Research will now be tied closely to academic departments. The creative writing program will be merged with other writing programs and may be more closely tied to the English department. Critics say these moves will undermine some of the programs that draw students and faculty members, and that link the college to various parts of the arts world.
Administrators have said that financial and educational reasons dictate major changes. Graduation rates hover around 40 percent -- and students leaving the college have a financial impact as well, given that most revenue comes from tuition. Enrollment is slipping. Currently there are about 11,000 students -- a drop of 1,000 over the last few years.
It remains unclear how and when the changes will begin, and faculty members say they worry that they will be ignored on the timing and execution of the plan, as they feel they were on its creation.
Last month, the Faculty Senate endorsed a letter criticizing the president’s plan. The letter didn't dispute that the college faces real challenges, but argued that merging and cutting the budgets of important programs -- and doing so without faculty input -- was unlikely to yield positive results. "A simple rearranging of programs in the absence of significant cultural and leadership changes will not have the necessary impact on the future of the college," the letter said.
Faculty leaders say that they are frustrated by the idea they say the administration has pushed that they (the faculty) are simply defending the status quo. "There is this message floating around out there that faculty is afraid of change. That is not true. We embrace the possibility of changing, but those changes should be driven by faculty expertise," said Pegeen Reichert Powell, president of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of English at the college.
Nancy Traver, an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia College and spokeswoman for P-Fac, a part-time faculty union at the college, said administrators have been using the word "prioritization" a lot, "but what they really mean is that there is going to be downsizing." She said the plans for cuts strips away the core of the college, one example being the college’s well-known Jazz Ensemble. "Columbia has had a very heavy focus on the arts. That’s been our identity," she said.
Traver’s concerns were echoed by Michael Bright, president of the United Staff of Columbia College and a student employment supervisor, who said staff at the college want to be retrained and redeployed if there is widespread restructuring. “I think the biggest concern right now is the loss of jobs. There is concern about how the college is being run,” Bright said.
How Selective on Admissions?
Much of the public debate about the college has focused on its best-known arts programs. But there is also a significant change being proposed -- and questioned -- on admissions.
The blueprint report calls for an immediate study of ways to improve the outcome of what it describes as "generous" admissions standards under which the vast majority of applicants are admitted. The report notes that an academic committee has also raised concerns about admissions standards, and the administration study acknowledges that this issue is complicated.
"At various times over the last two decades, Columbia has struggled to balance its fundamental mission to extend educational opportunity on the one hand with its ethical and educational responsibilities to admitted students on the other," the report says. "In recent years, the stakes for students and for the college have escalated. Nevertheless, in responding to these pressures, the college must not lose sight of its core values or the richness of a truly heterogeneous community of learners."
Faculty groups want to improve the college’s retention rates and agree that the college’s admissions policy deserves another look, but here too they have doubts about the administration's approach. “It should not be done to become selective like traditional colleges,” said Suzanne Blum-Malley, an associate professor of English.
The letter endorsed by the Faculty Senate also said that it worried that faculty concerns about admissions were being misunderstood. Professors, the letter said, want to be assured that changes in admissions to become more selective do not simply mean copying the approaches of other institutions. "By selectivity, we do not mean simply the recruitment of students with higher standardized test scores or higher incomes," the letter said. "Rather we advocate for the opportunity to carefully attend to the talent and preparation of incoming students and ensuring that when we bring them into our programs, we have the resources available to offer them the education that we market to them AND that they are prepared to take on the challenge of our demanding programs."