Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dr. Carter's Whiz Kids Meet the Chicago Press

Thanks to jazz music critic Howard Reich at the Chicago Tribune and Deana Isaacs at the Chicago Reader, the curtains have been opened to the general public on the deteriorating conditions at Columbia College Chicago.  Once the premier destination for students looking to pursue careers in the applied arts such as film, television, radio, and photography, Columbia has seen increasingly declining enrollments over the last decade.  An article published in Inside Higher Ed notes that enrollment dropped by more than 500 students between 2008 and 2010.  The college's own strategic vision report Focus 2016 also notes this decline with some concern.  This report ultimately served as a catalyst for the Blueprint Prioritization process that began at the college in the fall of 2011. 

Prioritization has as its core goal a necessary task in the life of any college or university--the periodic evaluation of programs to see if they are meeting the needs of students and represent current developments in each field of study.  However, the speed of the process, which is scheduled to be completed in June of this year, as well as the lack of broad student and faculty involvement in prioritization has led to increasing acrimony between the administration and its faculty, students, and staff. 

That acrimony came to a head at the State of the College address given by Columbia President Warrick Carter last week where he told a student to "shut up."  His comments followed a tense exchange between Carter and an African-American student at the college who identified herself as being homeless.  She questioned the president of the college's annual salary of $650,000 in light of the school's financial troubles and the department closures and consolidations necessary due to those fiscal realities.  Carter attempted to answer her question but was interrupted by another member of the audience who he told to "shut up." 

Local journalists are having a field day with Carter's gaffe but it is just one in a long series of tone deaf moves made by the college administration as it attempts to balance college costs and reassess its educational mission.  The largest of these is the secrecy with which the process has been shrouded.  Until recently, only those with access to the college's Human Resources site I.R.I.S. have been able to read the full prioritization reports.  Even students, unless employed by the college, were not able to access this site.

Of course, even if students as well as the general public had been able to read the reports, they would have been hard pressed  deciphering them.  Trying to understand the language of the evaluation process (created by a former college president named Robert C. Dickeson) is like learning Chinese.  It is essentially a bastardized version of the Total Quality Management (TQM) plan favored by corporations since the early 1980s right down to the heavy "business-ese" favored by the pinstriped crowd of the Old Boy Network.  Hey, if it worked for Chrysler's Iaccoca, why not Columbia College?  A business is a business, right?

Rather than admitting that perhaps they chose the wrong method to evaluate the college and its mission, Carter and his administrative staff have instead been circling the wagons.  The latest move is to place a voluntary gag order on Faculty and Staff at the college.  He recently warned Columbia employees to avoid speaking to students as well as media on the Prioritization process until it is complete.  Oops....

Apparently Dr. Carter and his team of whiz kids don't understand the cardinal rule of media.  The more you try to keep a secret, the higher the probability it ends up trending on Google. 

Prioritization recommendations are currently sitting on Carter's desk awaiting his decision, which should be delivered in June or July.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Searching for Ethics at the U of I.

In May of 2009, Chicago Tribune investigators exposed something known as "Category I."  This was a special admissions status that allowed politically connected students who otherwise would not be accepted to the university to attend.

Considering that two Illinois governors are serving federal prison terms, it should come as no surprise that our state higher education system has also been tainted by clout and corruption.  Yet this scandal rocked the Illinois system to its core leading to the resignation of then President B. Joseph White and the resignations of the majority of the Board of Trustees for the university system. 

Christopher Kennedy, the son of  Robert Kennedy and President of Merchandise Mart Properties real estate management firm, was chosen to be the new Chairman of the Board of Trustees and Michael Hogan was selected in May of 2010 to serve as the university system's new president. 

Fast forward to January of this year and the revelation that President Hogan's Chief-of-Staff--Lisa Troyer--sent an anonymous email to faculty at the university attempting to persuade them to adopt a new "streamlined" admissions initiative championed by the system president that would have linked the three campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield.

Faculty at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of the Illinois accused President Hogan of attempting to bully them through his assistant and forced Troyer's resignation.  One hundred and thirty of them also signed a letter in late February stating their lack of confidence in Hogan and asking him to resign. 

Responding to faculty pressure, the university board of trustees called an emergency meeting yesterday in Chicago.  In that meeting they charged Hogan to fix his relationship with the Urbana-Champaign faculty or risk being replaced. 

Because the board meeting was held in the same building that houses my office, I had the opportunity to see President Hogan leaving the meeting yesterday.  He did not look like a happy man.  Deflated was the word that kept coming to mind.  Clearly he was given a good dressing down by his superiors. 

What remains to be seen, however, is what impact if any this dressing down will have.  Ethics tests, new leadership, and changed enrollment policies have all failed to change the clout-driven status quo at the University of Illinois. 

Maybe we should let the students run the school.  Whether it's efficient or not, at least we'd know they are getting what they need.  And if they weren't, they would only have themselves to blame and not some entrenched bureaucracy.

Update: President Michael Hogan resigned on March 22 as head of the University of Illinois system.  He is being replaced for a two year period by Professor Emeritus Robert Easter.