To the Editor:
We are writing to express our deep concern about the dissolution of SIUC’s academic departments. We believe that across-the-board dismantling of all such units will have a negative impact on the pursuit of our collective aims of making SIUC stronger in research and in attracting and retaining high quality students and faculty.
We recognize the urgent need for improvements in recruitment and enrollment management at SIUC, and we welcome new ideas and bold initiatives to enhance our research and teaching missions. But coming as it does at a time when the budgetary problems of Illinois public higher education have already received national attention, we believe that the demise of all departments here will send an unintended signal of grave distress to potential students. We fear it will create the appearance that SIUC is so weakened that it is unable even to maintain this most basic unit of academic organization. Many observers will wrongly conclude that SIUC is fast approaching non-viability and is therefore an institution that should be avoided.
The model of a school with a single director may work well for certain combinations of disciplines, and we support those departments pursuing this path if they believe it is in their interest to do so. But in addition to the problem of public perception mentioned above, we do not believe that this plan will work in all fields, for a variety of reasons.
In terms of pedagogy, the department is in many fields viewed as the fundamental unit for designing and administering degree programs. A group of people with knowledge of the curricular and pedagogical norms of their specific discipline work together within a department to provide for the needs of their students. While collaboration with scholars beyond one’s field is enlivening, it is critical that people with a shared expertise in a specific discipline retain control over the administration of their programs.
Furthermore, the proposal to eliminate departments is sharply at odds with the chancellor’s stated aims of tripling the number of PhDs. Graduate students in many fields expect to study in the departments of their disciplines, seeking not only specific degree programs but rather the whole package that a department represents —a recognized cohort of professors and the tried-and-true concept of the department, which serves as an indicator of permanence and institutional support for the discipline. Graduate students look for programs with their own departments also because, in most fields, an advanced degree program that is not based in a department will not be taken as seriously by employers. We are already hearing concerns from prospective students on these very points.
Where research is concerned, we appreciate that the restructuring plan aspires to provide renewed support. SIU's reputation as an institution with the Carnegie rating of high research productivity has helped it attract and retain many excellent research-active faculty who bring recognition, grant dollars, and PhD students to SIUC. But in many fields, the loss of departments would likely handicap us in hiring and retaining such faculty. Scholars perceive departments as their disciplinary homes and as the single greatest sign of institutional commitment to a field.
Consequently, research-active job candidates will generally choose to work at universities with departments in their respective fields over ones that only offer a program in a school.
In regard to leadership issues, the position of department chair is one typically occupied by an established scholar and experienced teacher who has risen through the ranks and has a commitment to the welfare of his or her discipline. It is administrative work in service of a population that the administrator closely identifies with—his/her fellow scholar-educators and students. This affords department chairs special insight and provides a compelling motivation for them to make their units the best they can be. In time, junior faculty progress through the ranks to take on the same leadership role. The proposed new administrative cadre of school directors will not have a disciplinary connection to the majority of the scholarly programs that they oversee. They cannot be expected to understand all the curricula and scholarly products of the various fields under their jurisdictions. To us, this suggests a sharp curtailment in shared governance, representation, autonomy, and leadership resources.
As the restructuring plan gains national attention, the major professional societies of several fields,--which represent thousands of scholars and teachers in higher education and the high school level—have written impassioned letters to the Board of Trustees arguing for the maintenance of departments here, since departments constitute the most essential academic unit of the discipline they represent. These societies include the American Historical Association, the Linguistic Society of America, and the American Political Science Association.
Returning to the broader picture, while we agree that new initiatives are healthy and that restructuring has the potential to effect constructive change, no restructuring effort can be successful if opposing views of units and their leaders are ignored and summarily dismissed as “fear of change.” As Michael Goold and Andrew Campbell explain in “Desperately Seeking Synergy,” (Harvard Business Journal 1998), one of the main reasons that most synergy efforts fail is because leaders do not appreciate the input their unit managers give them; they fail to see that if “unit managers choose not to cooperate in a synergy initiative, they usually have good reasons.”
Synergy initiatives were all the rage in the business world in the 1990s, and many of them went awry. Yet, we now have the gift of being able to learn from the mistakes that were made, which include: 1) perceiving synergy opportunities in the wrong places, 2) disregarding the informed opinions of unit managers, 3) overlooking skill gaps (in the case at hand, skill gaps of the proposed school directors), and 4) overlooking potential negative effects of any given synergy initiative. We therefore exhort you, Chancellor Montemagno, President Dunn, and the Board of Trustees, to heed best business practices and respect the advice of discipline experts on whether or not to retain departments and chairs in their respective fields.
We are not averse to change or cost-cutting measures. We are exploring an alternative model for generating savings while retaining departments and chairs in units that choose to do so. We would welcome an opportunity to discuss this as well as options for revising the compensation for chairs, and perhaps making chairs regular (non-AP) faculty.
We conclude with a reminder that the center of all of this discussion is, and should remain, our students. Every day as chairs we hear from current, prospective, and former students who are excited about SIUC, delighted with experiences they have had studying or visiting here, and who have been drawn to SIUC for its rich offerings, its hands-on teaching, and the intellectual nurturance the departments provide. The departments, their chairs, the faculties, and our many innovative programs are not the problem when it comes to enrollment declines. Dismantling elements that work well will injure the whole, while simultaneously shifting attention from the real issue: how to make even more prospective students commit to the vital and exciting experience SIUC offers its students. We are a great university, and we think it is critical that we remain so if we are to attract greater numbers.
David Anthony, Chair of English
Father Joseph Brown, Former Chair of Africana Studies
Vicki Carstens, Chair of Linguistics
William Danaher, Chair of Sociology
Leonard Gadzekpo, Interim Chair of Africana Studies
Thomas Kidd, Chair of Theater
Gary Kinsel, Former Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Carey Krajewski, Chair of Zoology
Robert A. Lopez, Interim Director, School of Art and Design
John McCall, Chair of Anthropology
Aldo Migone (Emeritus), Former Chair of Physics
Subhash Sharma, Chair of Economics
Darren Sherkat, Former Chair of Sociology
Jennifer Smith, Interim Chair of Languages, Cultures, and International Trade
Anthony Steinbock, Interim Chair of Philosophy
Nathan Stucky, Chair, Communications Studies
Jonathan Wiesen, Chair of History