Monday, November 7, 2011

BOGged Down

In a few days 701 Board of Governors students, more than 10% of our total enrollment, will require advising for their Spring 2012 courses and the dizzying maze of confusion caused by the CEO and CAO of CSU who commanded that BOG transform into something else. That something else is General Studies (GS). While the proposed changes to the program as presented by the office of the Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (who will now inherit the program in this endless reshuffling of university programs, units and departments) illustrate a degree of hard work by faculty, chairs, Deans and staff in the CAS and BOG program, the new General Studies program is troubling for several reasons.

First is the student confusion and extra hassle this brings; the very things students complained about during the 2009 campus teach-in and the comments collected this semester by the Independent Student Union (a collective of students concerned about the direction of the university). BOG students received a letter from Provost Westbrooks on August 12, 2011 informing them of the changes. According to Dr. Westbrooks, “The reason for the reorganization of the program is to ensure that the degree earned by the students will prepare them for the challenges of professional life in the 21st Century.” The rationale sounds reasonable until you consider why many BOG students are in the program. These are students who are non-traditional age. They are pursuing a degree either because their job or job advancement requires it or for personal reasons. So, immediately one should scrutinize the soundness of this transformation.

Back to Westbrooks’ letter: After they are informed that the name has changed students are told that they must chose one of four options. These include 1) finishing their BOG degree by the end of Fall 2013. They have three semesters to complete or they will be transferred to GS; 2) change major to GS; 3) change to a traditional major program; or 4) Change to an Individualized Curriculum Program if they have earned more than 90 hours toward BOG degree. Finally, Provost Westbrooks explains that advisors will be available to assist them. I have faith in our university faculty and staff and believe that those advisors who will now be asked to much more work (will they get properly remunerated for their work?) are very good at their jobs. However, you can’t ask anyone to learn the entire curricula of each department and program in the university! BOG students who wish to choose option 3 will find this process difficult. Many have already expressed confusion and frustration at this additional hurdle on their way to achieving their educational goals.

The BOG confusion serves as metonym, metaphor and meditation on the confusion experienced by many students this semester as colleges, programs and departments were shuffled by executive order. Students sought guidance from faculty who upon return from summer break found out about these latest illogical institutional initiatives (III). One young man summed up this problem at the recent Board of Trustee meeting when he described how his department chairperson changed three times since last semester.

The Interim Dean’s office explained that as the last Illinois State University to have a BOG program we were an anachronistic bunch. We are told that the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) is ecstatic about this move into the next century. So, was this top-down authoritarian imposition into academic affairs (sovereign faculty space under any shared governance regime) a good idea? It depends on who you ask. If you ask current BOG students, you are likely to receive a negative response. These students, who were described as ‘experimental subjects,’ may not like the outcome of this ‘experiment’. Hopefully, the IBHE and HLC will answer in the affirmative.

But, we won’t know the answer to this question for some time. What we do witness is the intrusion into faculty space without an understanding by the regime of what is required to undertake such a reconstruction of a large program. This is illustrated by the scrambling that the committee to eliminate BOG and create GS had to do to develop this still incomplete program. Other faculty committees are being asked to sign-off the reconstruction/demolition/reincarnation of BOG without it even being completed. This, just days before registration. While I have faith in my colleagues and our CSU students that they will get through this maze relatively unscathed (though, obviously this will cause hardship for many), this illustrates well why faculty must govern academic affairs. Those who are not in the classroom nor do the grinding work of running the day-to-day primary mission of the university (learning) can’t possibly know whether or not their plans for reconstruction are pedagogically sound or whether they will assist students in acquiring their degrees, certificates and other qualifications. Nor can they know the amount of frustration and energy, and lowering of morale and enthusiasm that such ill-conceived notions bring.Traditionally, wholesale program changes and eliminations emanate from the faculty. A faculty knows the academic side of the university. Thus, this body is best positioned to develop it. Administration generally serves as a rubber stamp or in an advisory capacity on curricular matters. Their role is to support faculty initiatives and work to take care of the university’s budget. They might also care for the university’s reputation.

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