The Chancellor on WSIU

I (Dave J) rather belatedly listened to the Chancellor’s interview with Jennifer Fuller, done on January 9. He said some interesting things about tapestries and buckets, among other things. A summary with commentary is available after the break.

Q (Jennifer Fuller): With the new year, people are hopeful that SIU enrollment may turn upward. When do you see enrollment turning around?

A (Carlo Montemagno): Enrollment will continue to decline through the fall of 2018. Our activities haven’t taken hold yet. Once we have an “agreement in principle” in place about changes on campus, we can rebrand and promote our new arrangements and new programs. Students are starting to decide this spring where to go in 2019. If we get things in place this spring, we should be able to stabilize and start turning things around by the fall of 2019. If we can’t get such an agreement in principle in place this spring, it will be fall 2020 before we can expect improvement.

Commentary (Dave Johnson): First of all, the chancellor here admits that we’re doing nothing to promote enrollment for fall 2018—so he’s begun his tenure as chancellor by giving up on a year of recruitment. Even in the most optimistic scenario, real progress from the restructuring (new, innovative programs) will take years to take hold. This means that our only hope for increasing enrollment by 2019 or 2020 is through the promise that we are building something new. Will students be enticed to enroll in a university that promises it will get better by the time they graduate? 

Second, when it comes to marketing programs, there is no such thing as an “agreement in principle.” Either programs have been approved and are in place, or you don’t market them: you don’t sell students programs that aren’t approved. The IBHE has been very clear that it will not stand for that, and rightly so. New programs, in particular, will take time to be approved and staffed. There is no way that we will meet the spring 2018 deadline for final approval of new programs, which require IBHE review. It is extrememly unlikely that all major elements in the chancellor’s plan will be approved by then. For a man in such a great hurry, the chancellor’s plan is going to take a good long time to bear any fruit.

Q: So what are you having people in admissions tell students now?

A: The restructuring will have no impact on programs, which will be taught by the same faculty, with the same courses, and same accreditation. For students, it’s just not very different. What we’re doing is repositioning things so we can better highlight our strengths. I like to think of a tapestry, which right now has scattered “points of light” [individual strong programs] on campus; the new arrangement will combine them into 20 different “beacons” that will have national standing and will get students to come.

C: If the plan is to have no impact on programs, it is hard to see how it would ever attract any new students to campus. The argument that our “tapestry” would have brighter lights remains at the level of metaphor. Many programs worry that they would be hidden under a basket. Would marketing a School of Humanities be more attractive than marketing an English program, for example? Or marketing a School of Media, Communications, and Performing Arts more attractive than marketing a department of Cinema and Photography?  Most students do not seek out generalities at the level of the proposed schools: they seek individual programs–majors. Most majors and programs will lose visibility in the reorganization. Thus the plan will have no impact on the substance of programs, the chancellor tells us, and it is hard to see how it will improve marketing, either.

Q: Your plan has led to a lot of controversy at BOT meeting in December. It’s been suggested that if you were pushing things like the reorganizational proposals from 2013, there would have been much less opposition. Have you reconsidered taking a step back and doing a less ambitious approach?

A: The 2013 report made suggestions for mergers and formation of schools that are consistent with what we’re proposing now. So what we’re doing now is very similar to what’s been proposed before—but there was no action then, and five years have passed, so there are some changes in the market and in the plan, but it’s very close.

C: The 2013 plan did not call for the universal elimination of departments. It did suggest that schools be considered, and the suggested alignments naturally overlap with those proposed independently by the chancellor (who did not review the 2013 plan before coming up with his own). More importantly, the 2013 report called for quick action, but called for proposals to be developed by faculty task forces. The process would have been very different. SIUC was wrong to let these 2013 recommendations drop, but there is a huge difference between the process called for in the 2013 plan and the radical, universal restructuring of the chancellor’s current plan.

Q: The faculty union has filed grievances claiming you aren’t following the contractual rules. They think you’re not doing this right. So where does the reorganization stand?

A: It’s going according to schedule. We believe we’ve followed all the rules in the contract, and we’re working with faculty in some areas who are actually going to be voting to speed up the process in the next few weeks. So I don’t see a slowdown.

C: The FA of course differs about whether the process has followed the contract thus far. Ultimately an arbitrator will decide. As to whether the process is moving forward on schedule, votes to slow the process down are taking place on campus. Perhaps votes to speed up the process are also taking part, though I have no direct knowledge of this.

Q: There are varied degrees of support for your proposals across campus. Will your plan work if it goes into effect in some areas but not others?

A: That would be “sub-optimal.” In reality, we need to do it all. What we need is a fundamental change in the way we allocate resources. Currently resources are allocated at departmental level, so each gets a “bucket of money.” What we’re going to do is to move from 42 buckets to 15 or 18 buckets. This will allow money and people to flow more fluidly among programs and promote synergy. People won’t be tied to their small little bucket—they can work more broadly. This is why we need to do this across the whole campus.

For example, it would be great if we could have English faculty work together with faculty in technological areas or business—say if they could co-teach a lab course to train students just in time to write lab reports. Or business students could get instruction from English faculty about how to make their case study presentations more persuasive, while business faculty make sure they are doing the right business analysis. We can’t do this currently. If we fix this, we’ll develop innovative programs and drive students to the university.

C: The bucket analogy shows a limited understanding of how budgeting works on campus. Departments have almost no discretion over spending. Faculty lines are allocated at the college level and above. OTS budgets are determined at the college level, and very little OTS money is spent at the discretion of chairs.

The chancellor’s plan would do absolutely nothing to help English faculty work with faculty outside the school of humanities. English has worked with other programs in the past, offering sections of English Comp aimed at engineers (I believe) and at athletes. Various initiatives at “writing across the curriculum” have been tried in the past, and could be worth reviving. But the chancellor’s restructuring makes them no more practicable than they have been in the past. The chancellor’s chosen example is thus completely irrelevant. 

The example also support the worry that in the chancellor’s view fields like English are, first and foremost, service units, best suited to support other programs, rather than disciplines co-equal with others on campus. English faculty do more than help engineers learn how to write, just as scholars in Africana Studies do more than help police officers learn how to interact with the African-American community.

About Dave Johnson
I'm an Associate Professor in Classics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Among other things.

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