As they gather for their December meeting in Carbondale, members of the SIU Board of Trustees may find themselves puzzled about the uproar on campus. There is a consensus that SIUC needs to make changes; the board hired a new chancellor, Carlo Montemagno, who promised to bring change; and Chancellor Montemagno has now introduced an ambitious proposal for change. Yet the faculty senate, graduate council, and graduate and undergraduate student governments have all voted to oppose the major feature of the chancellor’s plan, the elimination of all academic departments, which would be replaced with large, multidisciplinary schools.
There are problems both with what the chancellor is doing and how he is doing it. The chancellor argues that we at SIUC don’t have the time to debate the most important element in his plan, the elimination of departments. Doing anything other than what he’s suggesting would, he argues, amount to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” So we’re headed for the iceberg (not the best image for attracting new students) and only the chancellor can save us. “You’re going to have to trust me,” the chancellor has said.
Universities, however, don’t run solely on trust. Faculty and students value research, argument and data. The chancellor has provided little of that. He has been strangely reluctant to point to models for his proposal, so we aren’t learning from successes and failures at other universities. Above all, Montemagno hasn’t demonstrated that his plan would turn around our enrollment crisis.
Despite the opposition, the chancellor insists that he’s providing a model of “shared governance,” the principle that faculty, students, and administration should work together to run the university. But while he has made some adjustments to his plan, he’s been unwilling to reconsider the most important element in it, the elimination of academic departments. So who is right, the chancellor, who says that he is listening, or the faculty and students who say that he isn’t? Well, shared governance is, in one respect, a bit like a marriage. If one partner says it isn’t going well, it isn’t going well.
To protect the right of faculty members to shape the future of the university, we in the SIUC Faculty Association are filing a formal grievance, arguing that faculty were not given our contractually mandated role in the original formation of the proposals, and were not provided with contractually required information to give us the information we need to evaluate his plan.
But why are students and faculty so upset about the chancellor’s plan in the first place? The elimination of departments would devalue academic disciplines. The proposed new school of humanities I’d be assigned to, for example, would include foreign languages, history, philosophy and English. But scholars in those disciplines ask different sorts of questions and teach students different sorts of things. Merging us all into one unit would mean that English professors wouldn’t control the teaching of English, and philosophers wouldn’t manage philosophy. Students come to a research university to study with specialists in their majors, and those major fields should form the basis of our academic structure. Yes, this is the traditional way of structuring a university, but not all traditions are out of date, and not every innovation is a change for the better. No wonder that faculty in my proposed school voted 43-0 to oppose the new plan.
So if the chancellor’s plan, and his approach, are flawed, what’s the alternative? There are plenty of suggestions for why our enrollment has declined, including our relatively high tuition and fees, inadequate staffing of current programs, and even the loss of the old party-school vibe. And there are plenty of suggestions for how we can promote innovative, interdisciplinary programs, and how we can save money. Indeed, some elements in the chancellor’s plan have found support among students and faculty, and, where faculty support the chancellor’s plan, the faculty union will have no objection, so long as the administration follows the contract. The problem lies in insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach against the will of faculty and students.
If we act quickly, but allow enough time to make smart, informed decisions with wide support on campus, we can rebuild enrollment and rebuild SIUC. What we can’t afford is a desperate, hasty gamble on a proposal that is attractive solely because it’s new. The future of SIUC and the community it serves is at stake. We need to work together and get this right.