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IWU Administration Rejects AAUP Report on Program Changes

The American Association of University Professors has criticized the Illinois Wesleyan University administration over a series of program revisions and reductions.

A report from the American Association of University Professors is critical of the way Illinois Wesleyan University handled changes and cuts to academic programs on campus. The segment is part of a larger work focusing on COVID-19 and academic governance.

IWU faculty had asked the AAUP for help in summer 2020 after the board of trustees discontinued programs in anthropology, French, Italian, and religious studies. The administration indicated it would phase out nine tenured faculty members after a year.

Faculty complained the administration “betrayed” them after promising no job cuts to get them to accept a role in the program review and then changed the rules in the middle and “hijacked” the process.

The AAUP report noted IWU President Georgia Nugent said she did not make such a promise and the pandemic also came along and changed things. The administration said it abided by accepted governance standards that call for discontinuing programs for educational reasons and not financial ones.

The AAUP report said during the investigation Nugent did not deny financial considerations were in play and said separating financial and educational concerns in a small institution is not possible.

“Faced with data that suggest the institution would be forced to declare a state of financial exigency within seven years, President Nugent said, the faculty and administration are impelled to try to determine how IWU can continue to attract students while maintaining its character as a liberal arts university,” said the report.

The AAUP noted there is a question whether the program changes could have been made gradually over those seven years.

After retirements, job transfers, and other adjustments, only one professor was slated for termination.

“For them (the faculty), it was a matter of principle: if this can happen to one of us, it can happen to any of us. The effect on faculty morale at Illinois Wesleyan University has been baleful,” said the report.

The AAUP found the governing board and administration departed from recommended standards and principles and did not engage in adequate communication on the issue of potential job cuts.

The AAUP invited Nugent and trustees president Tim Szerlong to comment on the draft report.

“The draft ... presents an incomplete factual record, relies on hearsay, and furthermore, misrepresents the facts in a number of ways. Not only does it accept without question faculty assertions that we believe to be inaccurate, but in doing so the report chooses to reiterate and emphasize particularly emotional and inflammatory language, rather than presenting an objective account,” Szerlong and Nugent replied.

The two rejected the report.

When contacted by WGLT, Nugent replied in a statement that it was “disappointing but not surprising” the “advocacy group” conducted the investigation.

“Notwithstanding the AAUP’s obvious lack of impartiality, the University cooperated fully with the investigation process. The University strongly disagrees with the AAUP’s investigative findings,” said Nugent.

The association placed the IWU case in a broader context and calls a series of reductions, evaluations, and program changes at other institutions "the most serious challenge to academic governance in the last half century."

The results of a recent AAUP national survey of four-year institutions of higher education indicated nearly 10% percent of institutions with a tenure system have laid off tenured and tenure-track faculty since the onset of the pandemic, and that 27.5% of the institutions surveyed have laid off faculty on part-time or full-time non-tenure track appointments. In addition, 17% of surveyed institutions have eliminated academic programs during the pandemic, and close to 1 in 10 have declared some or all institutional regulations no longer in force.

The report claimed the investigation of several colleges and universities, including IWU “was prompted largely by opportunistic exploitations of catastrophic events,” and called such actions “disaster capitalism.”

“Though it would be premature to say that we have entered a new era of institutional governance in advance of what some observers are calling “the great contraction” in American higher education, the evidence already before us suggests that this has been a watershed moment,” said the report.

“We remain committed to continuing collaborative efforts with our University community to bring new vitality to the future of liberal arts education at Illinois Wesleyan,” Nugent said in a statement.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.