CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty, students and staff gathered in Browne Auditorium on Wednesday evening to share concerns about the implications of Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s plan to restructure the university by eliminating departments.
At the open meeting co-hosted by the SIUC Faculty Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Council, speakers raised doubts about whether the campus-wide shake-up would actually increase enrollment or save the university money.
Attendees were also critical of what they called Montemagno’s top-down approach in preparing and introducing the plan.
The chancellor’s so-called “straw man proposal,” which was fully unveiled at an open forum on campus last week, would reduce the university’s eight colleges to five. Those colleges would house schools, which would in turn house degree programs.
Faculty Association President David Johnson argued that the $2.3 million the plan would reportedly save in administrative costs amounts to just 1.3 percent of the university’s budget — a small sum in the grand scheme of things, he said.
He also disputed the chancellor’s claim that the elimination of departments would allow for greater “synergy” by reducing barriers for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Faculty in the humanities, he said, are largely solo practitioners, “so the language of synergy and collaboration is not as moving to us as it is in other kinds of disciplines.”
“The plan, I think, is receiving a different reception in different parts of campus in part based on disciplinary differences in the way we go about structuring our work lives. In other words, it’s more attractive to people in some areas than others,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the plan, which Montemagno hopes to implement by July 1, 2018, would cause a major disruption, forcing faculty to move and draft new operating papers — energy that professors could otherwise put into classes and research.
Johnson questioned what he saw as Montemagno’s hesitancy to provide models for the new restructuring.
“He hasn’t supplied much evidence that doing this will generate the results that he’s looking for,” he said.
The chancellor has proposed several new programs in applied areas and in STEM fields, adding a new school of Homeland Security, which includes a police academy. Those programs would easily cost more than the $2.3 million the plan would save by eliminating department chairs, Johnson argued.
“I used to teach out of a foreign language department, which is one of the cheapest departments on campus, and our budget was a little less than $1 million at that time,” Johnson said.
He also questioned the optics of eliminating the Africana Studies major while adding a police academy to the university’s course offerings.
“There are politics involved here. Let’s just be frank about it,” Johnson said.
He said that although Montemagno has said that he does not intend to turn SIUC into a polytechnic school, the plan appears to indicate that certain parts of campus will be demoted to service units.
“What he’s going to do, it seems pretty clear, is shift money from the humanities and the social sciences and the arts, to technical applied fields,” Johnson said.
The Faculty Association contract gives faculty the right to propose alternatives to Montemagno’s proposal, and to vote on the proposal, although only in an advisory capacity.
“Votes are public, they’re formal, they’re corporate expressions of what faculty think. But they’re still advisory,” Johnson said.
GPSC President Johnathan Flowers said the proposed orthogonal or horizontal structure has been applied by the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering, University of California, Davis and the Rockefeller Institute — but only for STEM fields.
“It does not work in the humanities. There has been no demonstrable evidence that this will provide the same kinds of returns for the humanities that it will for the STEM fields,” Flowers said. “ … This has worked in small STEM situations, not in large institutional contexts like the one we’re doing here.”
Flowers also discussed changes to graduate assistantships — appointments for people who serve in teaching, administrative or research roles while completing post-graduate degrees — including new reliance on grants obtained by faculty to fund GA positions. Although Montemagno intends to increase Ph.D. production, teaching assistants will no longer be instructors of record.
“The intention, then, is to backfill with NTTs (non-tenure-track faculty). I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely sure we have the financial resources to replace every GA that is not on grant funding with an NTT,” Flowers said.
Flowers said there has been no commitment of year-long funding for international students.
Student Trustee Sam Beard condemned the decision to create a new School of Homeland Security while eliminating the Africana Studies major.
“SIU is a place for knowledge transfer, research and creative thinking. It is not a place to aid our wildly unpopular government in maintaining its control over the populace or expanding its already inflated police force,” Beard said.
He called Montemagno “an outsider who does not understand the dynamics of this school, this place, this people” and said the chancellor’s calls for shared governance rang hollow.
“But this shared governance has revealed itself to be the chancellor making all of the decisions while graciously accepting feedback in the form of email responses from students and faculty. True shared governance would be these decisions being made by the actual stakeholders, not the corporate model of executives calling the shots while eliciting mere suggestions from their employees,” he said.
Beard said constituents must address the model as a whole rather than quibbling over specifics, and he called for the formulation of a counter-proposal.
“If this general model is not what we want, if we find the whole thing to be ill-thought-out, irrational, not in the best interest of the faculty, students or scholastics generally, then I urge the students and faculty to reject it wholeheartedly and not play ball,” Beard said.
Over a dozen faculty, students and community members offered up comments and questions in the subsequent hour.
Segun Ojewuyi, a theater professor, said it was important to look at the “subtext” of the proposal.
“Before this proposal could even mature … we’re already being told that we’re resisting change. That’s a ‘straw man’ argument, because we have not even expressed ourselves yet,” Ojewuyi said.
He said he and others who have been on campus for a long time have seen several attempts to make changes to programs.
“But we have always been told that we needed to count the beans, and every time we did not finish the counting before the bucket was thrown away, and when a new chancellor comes in, we have to start again, and start counting the beans over again,” Ojewuyi said. “… In a university, we advance the education of the mind, beyond just counting beans.”
Mike Sullivan, a mathematics professor, said synergy is important, and that the math department collaborates regularly with departments in other colleges, but reshuffling the placement of programs will come with drawbacks.
“When you move a person from here to here, they’re closer to this person but not to that person anymore, so what synergies are you creating?” he said.
Patrick Dilley, associate professor of higher education, said the administration does not have to pit areas of study against one another.
“I’ve been here 16 ½ years. This is my ninth chancellor. Each chancellor is brought in with a plan to make a plan. They come in, they rebrand, they change the logo, they reformulate the campus, so they have a really nice thing to say when they go out looking for their next job,” Dilley said.