FA News: 11/6/2017

Dear colleagues,

Two announcements to start with:

  1. The FA’s Departmental Representative Council (DRC) will meet this Thursday (11/9) at 5:00 in Parkinson 202. Our topic will be the chancellor’s plans for the future of SIUC, and what role FA members would like to see the FA play in this process. All FA members are welcome to attend.
  2. A group of faculty and students who sponsored the October 25thcommunity meetinghas formed a “Coordinating Committee for Change at SIU.” I attach a copy of the group’s letter calling for volunteers: CCC Letter 1.

Chancellor Montemagno’s Vision 2025 proposals continue to generate considerable discussion and controversy on campus and in the press. We’ve gathered some links to coverage on our website. Here, to avoid going on even longer than usual, I’ll address just one central element among the many things he is proposing: the replacement of all academic departments with schools.

We in the FA will have no objection if faculty in any given area determine that the chancellor’s school model works for them. What we object to is a unilateral decision to eliminate all academic departments, a decision that was made without consultation with faculty and is apparently being maintained in the face of objections from faculty.

Elimination of departments would save only 1.3% of our state budget. 

To put this figure in perspective, in recent years the athletics department has run a larger deficit than the $2.3 million which would be gained by eliminating academic departments. $2.3 million would certainly not suffice to fund all the new programs the chancellor wishes to introduce. If administrative savings are a goal, there are other ways of meeting it, including by looking outside of academic affairs.

The chancellor has presented no relevant model for his proposal.  

Many universities have schools in some areas, like our School of Allied Health and School of Art and Design. Still others have schools but retain departments within those schools. But the chancellor has not identified a university that has replaced all departments with schools. At his open forum, he was willing to name only one model: Dartmouth, a private Ivy League university. But Dartmouth has only one undergraduate school, its school of engineering (the chancellor’s home discipline); Dartmouth’s other undergraduate programs are offered either by independent departments or as interdisciplinary programs staffed by faculty housed in those departments. Dartmouth is a poor match for SIU and a poor match for the chancellor’s plan.

Departments are not the enemy of innovation. 

The chancellor has asserted that “the financial structure associated with departments” is the single greatest factor holding this campus back. But the disincentives which pit SIUC departments against one another are due to inept accounting procedures at the college and provost level. At SIUC, we cannot manage to count second majors, or credit both math and education for training math educators. Such problems would not go away with schools, which would themselves be in competition for resources, as would the newly vulnerable programs within them. Real reform at SIUC would solve this bean-counting problem, not simply shift it from one sort of academic unit to another.

Faculty will not change identities overnight. 

Much of the promise of the chancellor’s plan is based on the belief that faculty in new schools would view the schools as genuine academic communities and work together to produce innovative new programs and research. But accountants would not become economists just because they were housed in the same school, nor would geographers become geologists, or historians become philosophers. Traditional departmental structures reflect the areas in which faculty have been trained, and new faculty and students, particularly graduate students, seek to join strong departments whose stability is guaranteed by their institutional status. They may shy away from programs lacking that status. Many of the new schools, by contrast, would be artificial bureaucratic creations with little shared identity.

The proposal would threaten faculty workloads.

The chancellor argues that his scheme would free up faculty to teach and do research. But it is far from clear how any one school director could possibly do the work currently done by four or more department chairs. Program coordinators, who would be called upon to do much of the work currently done by chairs, would be given far less release time or summer pay, and it is not clear that faculty serving in posts like directors of undergraduate or graduate studies would receive any compensation at all. Without course releases or summer pay,  the proportion of workload going to service would increase significantly for faculty doing such service work for their programs, with consequent reductions in their time for teaching and research.

The proposal is a huge gamble. 

The chancellor’s plan is already producing at least as much concern and confusion as excitement or interest. Should the plan go into effect, disruption would continue as the new schools struggle to take form, relocate faculty, offices, and labs, and produce operating papers. What the chancellor is asking us to do is to bet that this confusion and disruption will pay off in the long run. But in the absence of models or other forms of evidence this seems a very risky bet indeed.

Chancellor Montemagno deserves credit for starting an overdue conversation about the future of SIUC. But if changes are to be effective, they must be grounded in argument and evidence, they must make sense for all areas of campus where they will apply, and they must be the result of a genuine process of shared governance. We offer these comments in hope that the chancellor’s initiative can ultimately result in this sort of positive change.

In solidarity,

Dave Johnson

President, SIUC Faculty Association

About Dave Johnson
I'm an Associate Professor in Classics and currently (fall 2016) President of the SIUC Faculty Association.

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