To the Editor:
I am writing this to provide a different perspective from that of my colleagues whose letter appeared in the March 1, 2018, edition of The Southern. I am referring to the Voice of the Reader letter expressing their concerns and disapproval of the overall elimination of the academic Departments at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
At the outset, I am the Chairperson of the Department of Management in the College of Business, I have been at SIUC since fall 2001, and I have been Chair of Management since 2009. Further, several weeks ago, I received an email from, I believe, one of the signers of the March 1 letter soliciting my support for the letter and asking if I would be a co-signer. I declined on both counts. My perspectives have not changed.
My colleagues have stressed that eliminating departments will indicate to interested and affected stakeholders that SIUC has become weak, that it “… is fast approaching non-viability and is therefore an institution that should be avoided.” They have stressed that pedagogy, degree programs and control over degree programs cannot exist successfully outside of the Departmental structure. I must take exception to their rationale.
When I was an undergraduate student, which admittedly was a long time ago, all I knew is that I wanted to major in a business discipline. I did not know which one when I began my studies, and I certainly did not think of a structural unit called a Department. During my graduate studies, I knew what area/major/concentration/program I wanted to study, but I had no issue about where the program was housed. Again, a department probably existed, but I gave it no thought.
As Department Chair, I attend SIUC Open Houses several times a year. Usually, high school juniors and seniors, often along with their parents, attend these gatherings. Their interests lie in courses, programs and majors. Rarely, if at all, do they raise a question about where such and such a program is housed other than it is most likely, in my case, in the College of Business. These prospective students ask me about a major and specializations in Management, not about departments. I also attend New Student Orientations several times a year. These programs are for students, usually entering freshmen or transfer students, who have been admitted to SIUC and who will be attending soon, usually in the upcoming fall semester. Again, they do not ask about departments. Similar to Open House gatherings, the new students ask about courses, schedules, Registered Student Organizations, not departments.
Regarding their position that the elimination of departments is contrary to the chancellor’s aims of increasing Ph.D. enrollment, I must again take exception to their line of reasoning. Graduate students, especially Ph.D. students, are concerned with programs, courses to take, faculty who often may be from different academic disciplines, research interests, and job opportunities upon completion of their programs. Often, these new Ph.D. students enter a program with specific research questions or topics in mind; sometimes too they do not. Nonetheless, not retaining a Departmental structure does not eliminate “… a recognized cohort of professors…”
At this point in time, there are no programs being eliminated because of the proposed reorganization, and as such, graduate students retain the relationships with faculty and their peers that are in a program, regardless of the fact that the program is part of a School. Faculty are retaining control of their courses, of the programs and curricula. A department is most assuredly not needed for this. As a side note to their thinking, my doctoral studies were in the College of Business, and my program involved faculty from one department from three different academic areas. The faculty worked well together, and the doctoral students performed well and successfully.
Regarding research, faculty sometimes work alone on projects, sometimes they work with other colleagues. At times, other colleagues may be located within the same area of interest and College, e.g., Biology in a College of Science, they may be in other areas of study within SIUC perhaps outside of Biology, and quite often, researchers may collaborate with partners across the country or even half-way around the world. Again, my colleagues paint a picture that, in this case from a research perspective, the sky is falling without Departments.
My colleagues indicate that loss of leadership will occur without the departmental structure. Again, I cannot agree entirely. I do support their position regarding who a chair normally is, i.e., experienced researcher and teacher. However, their implication is that a department chair can only work with faculty and students in his/her own area, e.g. Management Information Systems, and is unable to do so effectively with those outside of that area. In support of my position on this issue, I have been a faculty member at two major research institutions, and in each case, I was a member of a department, yes, a department, where there were multiple disciplines and programs within the same unit. In one case, faculty consisted of those in Management Information Systems, Management Science/Operations Management, and Statistics. In the other case, faculty were from the broad area of Management, Operations Management, and Management Information Systems. The Department Chairs of both units of the two universities were educated in one area within the Department, not all three. In all cases, faculty worked well together, undergraduate and graduate students received the same caliber of understanding from a Chair who was not from their program. I make this point because it is similar to the Chancellor’s proposed reorganization wherein a School Director is working with faculty and students from other areas.
My colleagues have indicated that the elimination of departments may not be inappropriate for some units, programs, etc. That is important. However, perhaps some outside the academic community may read their letter and take too broad of a view that leads them to believe that Departments are critical for all areas and programs. This is just not true! The elimination of departments, creation of new programs, and movement of some programs as proposed can lead to increased collaboration among faculty. Students will no longer be hamstrung to the structural artificialities often found within the departmental structure.
Lastly, my colleagues have written at great length that the elimination of departments at SIUC will, among other things, lead to lower enrollments for the reasons they have enumerated. Lest we forget, SIUC’s enrollment peaked at about 25,000 students in 1991 and has essentially been declining since then. Need they be reminded that as far as I can recall, Departments have been an internal structure within the University, at least since my arrival in 2001, and most probably for many years, perhaps decades, prior to that date. Has the maintenance of the departmental structure led to increased or even stable enrollment? Hardly! To focus on a structural perspective as my colleagues have done ignores the many reasons why enrollments have declined. It’s time to rethink how SIUC operates with the idea that perhaps the Chancellor’s plans to reorganize structurally are very appropriate. Removing silos and barriers that can inhibit student programs and success will, I feel, be a step in the right direction.
Chair of Management