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ISU Academic Senate Rejects Engineering College

Illinois State University graduate student union organizers on the Quad during a 2017 event
Carleigh Gray
Illinois State University graduate student union organizers on the Quad during a 2017 event.

Illinois State University’s Academic Senate voted narrowly Wednesday night to reject plans for a new engineering college.

Contentious contract talks between ISU and its new graduate workers union weighed heavily on the vote. Several senators cited the ongoing negotiations as the reason for their “no” vote, even as they expressed general support for an engineering program, school or college in the future.

Education professor Tom Lucey said he has engineers in his family, and he values the field. But he criticized ISU leaders for their handling of the graduate workers issue and for what he called a lack of openness in the search for retiring President Larry Dietz’s successor.

“I believe that much in the area of shared governance needs to improve in this university before approving a new college,” said Lucey before his “no” vote.

The vote was 22-to-18 in favor, with 11 senators abstaining. It needed 23 to pass.

The vote doesn’t mean the engineering college is dead forever. Indeed, the Academic Senate previously signaled support by approving financial and curricular models for engineering. Creation of new programs is a lengthy process, with many stages of approval that are just now getting underway.

ISU administrators are hoping that a new engineering college will help both recruit students and deliver more engineers into the workforce that needs them, including at companies like Rivian. The proposal would put the College of Engineering in the old John Green Food Service building near Cardinal Court.

Academic Senate chair Susan Kalter, also a professor of American literature and Native American studies, supported the engineering college proposal. Kalter said those spearheading the effort had done their due diligence.

“I think it’s an incorrect statement to say that the claims being made in the (engineering) proposals have not been supported by evidence,” Kalter said. “I’ve studied these proposals at great length, to the point where administrators are pulling their hair out because I ask so many questions.”

ISU Provost Aondover Tarhule said he was hopeful the engineering college would be revisited after the union issue was resolved.

“Even though it failed, I’m really encouraged by the many comments I heard from many of the contributors (at Wednesday’s meeting),” Tarhule said. “It seems to me the vote was not really against the (engineering) program per se, but in response to the situation with the graduate students.”

In a statement after the meeting, the Graduate Workers Union/SEIU Local 73 claimed victory and said it agreed with “undergraduate, graduate, and faculty representatives who stated that the university should prioritize existing problems, like supporting the graduate workers who are nearly two years into bargaining, before taking on a major new project like a College of Engineering.”

“The (union) thanks these senators for their solidarity, and looks forward to working together as we continue to fight for a contract that confronts the poverty and debt graduate workers experience by working at ISU,” the union said in a statement late Wednesday.

The next negotiating session, with an independent mediator, is set for April 12.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.