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Scholars Mobilize Against Potential 31% IWU Faculty Reduction

Students standing in front of Ames Library
Illinois Wesleyan University
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Allies of scholars at Illinois Wesleyan are registering their opinions of possible cuts and changes at Bloomington's liberal arts institution.

Religious scholars and philosophers are among those encouraging Illinois Wesleyan University President Georgia Nugent and the board of trustees to preserve academic programs.

Professors in IWU’s Religion and Philosophy departments are among the 31 tenured or tenure-track faculty the administration has sent pre-termination notices. IWU had earlier put the number of notices at 25, but corrected that figure on Thursday.

That is about 26% of the 119 tenured and tenure-track faculty. Some of those tenured or tenure-track positions notified are in areas not previously recommended by faculty for reductions.

The IWU administration said Thursday it also has sent notices to 31 adjuncts that typically teach one or two courses and are not generally full time. Two instructional staff members also have been notified their positions may not be retained. In all, IWU said 64 notices were distributed to an instructional staff of 207, or close to a third of the total (31%).

The society for those who study religion on Friday urged IWU to reconsider possible cuts to religious studies offerings. The American Academy of Religion has 8,000 members worldwide. In a letter to Nugent and IWU Trustees President Timothy Szerlong, academy president José Cabezón and the rest of the organization’s leadership asserted the "critical importance" of maintaining and promoting the Religion Department at the 170-year-old Bloomington institution.

“Religion should hold an important position in higher education as it holds such an important position in both private and public lives,” said Cabezón. “Religion matters. It is the way people around the world have expressed what matters most to them, including their social identities and aspirations. For this reason, the study of religion has become one of the main vehicles for informed reflection on human culture.”

In response, Nugent said she appreciated the academy’s thoughts on the matter.

“If a learned society becomes aware of a program that they believe to be threatened by closure, it is appropriate -- and, indeed, a duty -- to express support of the program, typically by writing to the provost and or president of the relevant institution,” said Nugent.

Nugent said she recently served as the head of the society in her own discipline of Classics and is not surprised to receive one from the American Academy of Religion.

“I have sent a number of such letters myself,” she said. "Every academic discipline has a national organization, called a learned society, whose function is to provide professional support to the faculty members who teach in that field.”

The potential IWU changes also have drawn attention from philosophy scholars. An online publication, DailyNous, noted the developments at Illinois Wesleyan, adding a Boston University professor has created an online petition to urge the IWU administration to reconsider what is termed a "serious mistake, a mistake that will have great consequences."

“IWU states that its 'primary focus is opening students’ minds.' The Philosophy Department is nationally recognized for its excellence and has played a central part in realizing this goal,” wrote Aaron Garrett of Boston University. “This action by the Administration directly undermines this goal. By getting rid of the Philosophy Department IWU will be a liberal arts college no more.”

Another philosophy blogger, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago, called the potential reduction to Philosophy “shocking,” and said the IWU faculty in that discipline is "notably strong."

“IWU President Georgia Nugent in a prior presidency at Kenyon College in Ohio was noted for her strong commitment to the liberal arts and especially the humanities,” wrote Leiter.

In a letter to faculty, students, and alumni on Wednesday, Nugent affirmed that commitment and said she wanted to "dispel unfounded fears that Illinois Wesleyan, as a result of self-study, would diverge from the liberal arts heritage which is and will remain our core."

"As some of you know, I have been an advocate for the liberal arts on a national level for decades," Nugent wrote. "The last thing I would want to do is undermine the liberal arts at an institution I lead."

Nugent said the decisions the board will make are not known.

"It is possible that some cuts will be recommended. No one would deny that change of that kind is painful. And, as has often been said, we cannot cut our way to success; there must also be investment in positive change that will help the university continue to flourish. This kind of self-evaluation has been undertaken by many peers and resulted in stronger, more vibrant, more distinctive institutions, better able to service, today's students," said Nugent.

In the letter, she mentioned nursing, business, the Center for Human Rights and Social Justice, and a School of Business and Economics, as some areas of potential investment and said others such as Communications, a comprehensive program for first-year orientation, and data science are all worth developing or researching further.

IWU Trustees will meet July 16 to consider changes to university programs and departments.

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