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IWU Struggles Over Identity And Academic Offerings

Ames Library at Illinois Wesleyan University
Illinois Wesleyan University continues a difficult process to consider changes in academic programs.

Some faculty members at Illinois Wesleyan University are questioning a process that could lead to further program changes and cuts next month. The stakes could be as high as their jobs. Some faculty also frame the discussion as a defining moment for the culture and identity of the 170-year-old liberal arts institution.

The more-than-yearlong effort to help IWU adjust to a new reality in higher education has created winners and losers, some yet to be determined, and more than a little heartache and grief.

The process

In May, the IWU board of trustees endorsed a faculty-recommended closure of American Cultural Studies, Design, Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greek and Roman Studies, and International Business. That was the result of a review by various university constituencies, including a faculty body called the council on university programs and policy. 

Trustees put off until July 16 decisions on other programs under review.

"It does become a bit alarming when you have a board making what feels like a unilateral decision."

On June 12, IWU sent pre-termination notices to 25 tenured faculty in the departments of Anthropology, Philosophy, Religion, Sociology, the School of Music, and French and Italian within the department of World Languages Literatures and Cultures, telling them their positions were under review for possible termination. That’s about 21% of IWU’s faculty. 

Pre-termination notices are a good governance requirement under guidelines of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). It lets faculty whose jobs are at risk know about it and gives them a month to respond.

The problem, said several professors who talked with WGLT, is that some of the majors, minors and programs being considered for elimination were not recommended by any faculty committee. The professors asked that their names not be revealed as the university considers the future of those departments. Others did go on the record.

Michael Theune, who holds an endowed professorship at IWU, also is the vice chair of the university council on programs and policy, one of the reviewing bodies for changes.

“And even in the administrative response to all of what happened (at the May board of trustees meeting), none of those were identified as units that might be considered for closure,” said Theune.

In May, the board of trustees also created a task force of four trustees, and three senior faculty -- two of whom are current or previous chairs of the faculty governance committee that advises the administration on university operations.

"The working group is not making recommendations to the board per se. Their objective has been to examine data and become more deeply informed about the programs, so they may serve as a resource to the board in making data-informed decisions," said IWU President Georgia Nugent.. 

"IWU is a liberal arts university and will remain committed to the liberal arts."

University President Georgia Nugent said faculty in departments under review have an opportunity to respond to the working group. Potentially affected faculty told WGLT recently they still don’t know what they are supposed to respond to.

“One of the tricky aspects of where we are in the process right now is that it’s not quite clear where the shaping is coming from and that in fact, if such shaping is going on, the process needs to go back to the faculty in a very explicit way, but it doesn’t seem as though that step in the process is being considered,” said Theune.

In a response to a WGLT question, Nugent said the three professors on the working group does constitute appropriate faculty involvement in the next-to-last stage of the process and does fulfill that AAUP guideline.

“The working group's consideration of a wide range of data and their discussions will guide the deliberations of the trustees when they meet in July," said Nugent. "At that point, the board is expected to make decisions. As the faculty handbook states in its first sentence, 'The University is a corporation and responsibility for its governance is ultimately in the hands of the members of the Board of Trustees.' In making decisions at the conclusion of this yearlong process involving faculty at many different points, the board will be exercising that authority.” 

Faculty are in the minority on the working group.

“It does become a bit alarming when you have a board making what feels like a unilateral decision. That’s scary because it’s not quite clear what shared governance means,” said Theune.

AAUP guidelines on eliminating academic programs are general, and not meant to define a specific process, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, the head of program review for AAUP and a former IWU professor.

“The initial decision that a program be discontinued should first come from the faculty. I think we would generally view any action taken unilaterally by an administration or a board to elect to discontinue a program that hasn’t been recommended for discontinuation by the faculty as suspect under these principles,” said Tiede.

Faculty can file complaints with the AAUP that might trigger an investigation involving a team sent to a campus to make a determination on the ground. In cases where the AAUP finds a serious violation, the organization could put a college or university on a list of censured institutions. 

“I would say the primary consequence is that it communicates to the academic community and the public at large that conditions of academic freedom at the institution are not sound,” said Tiede, adding colleges and universities typically have high motivation to be removed from that list.

In recent memory, the AAUP placed the University of Illinois on that list after a teaching offer to Professor Stephen Salaita was rescinded after inflammatory remarks he made about Israel and Zionism that came to the attention of university donors. 

Tiede said the U of I worked very hard to reassure the AAUP about its protections for academic freedom and be removed from the list.

Tiede declined to address what is happening at IWU. He cited the need to avoid a conflict of interest. 

Retired IWU professor Bob Bray said the developments further erode faculty input in shaping the direction of the institution. In particular, he said faculty seem to be getting disenfranchised from their only real position of authority -- over the curriculum.

“What you get when you have these kinds of retrenchment is that the administration will say that it’s about programs that aren’t paying for themselves. Well, that’s a distinction without a difference. You can’t have a curriculum if they abolish your program,” said Bray.

Even if trustees abolish all programs on the list, some faculty might not lose their jobs.

Earlier in the spring, Nugent told WGLT the administration will make efforts to repurpose faculty. Some could teach general education courses within their discipline without having students declare a major. Others could be placed in positions outside their discipline for which they have qualifications.

It is that potential rootless existence outside of a department and without a coherent program offering that distresses some faculty. Philosophy Professor Mark Criley sent a message earlier this month to a faculty listserv that was then provided to WGLT.

“I am heartbroken. Part of what made this job so wonderful is colleagues like you,” said Criley.

Loss of identity

No matter the result of the July trustees meeting, some faculty mourn for the soul of the institution. 

"If you don't understand what the basic argument was between Plato and Aristotle, then you are not going to be able to understand where science is today and where the whole concept of social justice is."

“I can’t imagine a liberal arts school without philosophers in it, without religious studies scholars, without sociologists,” said Theune.

“IWU is a liberal arts university and will remain committed to the liberal arts. A program closure, should one occur, does not necessitate that courses would no longer be offered in that program,” said Nugent.

For Bray that is cold comfort. He said general education is not the same as liberal arts.

“Liberal arts requires a coherent, guided study of the western tradition, its triumphs and its tragedies. If you don’t understand what the basic argument was between Plato and Aristotle, then you are not going to be able to understand where science is today and where the whole concept of social justice is,” said Bray. 

Theune said Illinois Wesleyan University works hard to prepare students for what teachers hope will be vocations and to help them in that discovery.

“We get to actually surprise students with their calling. Education means to lead out of. To truly educate is to call forth from somebody. Calling forth a vocation that maybe they didn’t know they even had is one of the best things that can happen in undergraduate schooling. That transformation very often happens as a result of deep engagement with the liberal arts, with the humanities, with the social sciences,” said Theune.

He said he fears too many program cuts will critically reduce a breadth of choice of ideas that will restrict student opportunities to find a calling.

“Whatever comes feels like a diminishment and I would want to know how things can be restructured so that there might still be some power and transformation, but at this stage, I do not see it,” said Theune.

Bray said IWU should double down on the humanities.

But in a June 12 message to faculty titled, "Clarity in Communication," Nugent responded to the idea that decreased support for liberal arts majors could mean Wesleyan will become a very different institution by saying it already has become so.

“Today, Illinois Wesleyan is an institution where approximately 5% of our students major in humanities disciplines. The students have voted with their feet. They are not choosing liberal arts majors. Their preferences and perceived needs have already created a different university,” said Nugent.

She said IWU has more than adequately supported liberal arts disciplines as shown by faculty-to-student ratios. She said across the traditional humanities fields, the faculty-student ratio is about 1 to 5. Meanwhile in Accounting, Business, Economics, and Nursing, the ratio is about 1 to 35. 

“A university where students choose to study in pre-professional fields is not a ‘different institution,’ it’s the university we are,” wrote Nugent. 

Many universities are going through similar painful adjustments adjusting to enrollment trends, changing demographics, and economic concerns that lead high school graduates to prioritize a perceived surer path to employment.

“More than concerned, I’m a little heartsick about what seems to be going on,” said Bray.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect the fact the faculty and board working group will not make final recommendations to the board, but serve as a resource to the board.

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