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Slow Down the UIS Bandwagon

January 1995


When the legislature began ramming through the bill to force us into the U of I, some of us tried to raise questions about the "merger." Not too successfully. The State Journal-Register never published this letter, even though the editor said they would. (The SSU student newspaper did publish it after I gave up on the Springfield media.)

Later I wrote a letter about the newspaper's "objectivity" on this issue. They didn't publish that either.

Column Submitted to the Newspaper

January 18, 1995

Slow Down the "University of Illinois-Springfield" Bandwagon

Governor Jim Edgar and the Illinois State Legislature are getting ready to transfer authority over Sangamon State University from the soon-to-be-abolished Board of Regents to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. U of I administrators, local state legislators, and now a group of area business executives apparently are determined to declare the 25-year old SSU experiment a failure. Even at SSU, some students, professors, and administrators are jumping on the bandwagon. Dissenters are mostly quiet, so far.

Yet Springfield residents should consider a few unresolved issues before buying into the developing consensus.

To start off with an honest admission, SSU professors clearly have their own jobs at stake. The governor and the legislature have not yet decided what kind of institution Sangamon State will become. Rumor has it that the legislation will leave that kind of petty detail up in the air, to be decided later. It is that detail, however, that will determine whether SSU's teachers will retain their jobs or file for unemployment.

That's an important issue for SSU faculty&emdash;I'd like to keep my job, too&emdash;but I understand that faculty job security is not the most significant issue for Springfield as a whole. More important, and the impetus for this column, is the unquestioned declaration by some legislators and other politicians, as reported in the media, that the change will lead to "higher student and faculty standards" at a "higher status institution."

Now, that assumption may in a sense be true, but not for the reasons that many in Springfield think. Two issues should be kept in mind:

First, "increasing student quality" very likely would mean instituting stricter standards for student admissions. Right now, SSU accepts anyone with a community college associate's degree, as well as many others who have not benefited from the upper middle-class educations more commonly obtained by students admitted to the University of Illinois.

As a result, many SSU students are first-generation college students. Many work full time and have too little time for their studies. Many have families to support.

And, to be frank, too many are not fully prepared for upper-level college work when they arrive on campus.

So SSU students are often difficult to teach. We professors spend a lot of time trying to help our students become better students. And to a great extent we succeed.

If stricter entrance standards means we'll have "better students" entering SSU, few professors would complain. We'd all like to teach better students. True, they're not the ones who need the most attention. But they are easier to teach.

The second issue has to do with the notion of having a "higher standard" for faculty. Despite what many Springfield residents might believe, "higher faculty standards" at the university level have almost nothing to do with teaching ability.

In the world of higher education, high status of the kind associated with the University of Illinois does not come from hiring professors who enjoy teaching undergraduates. It comes instead from hiring professors whose primary interest and skill is conducting their own research. Professors in high-status research institutions are more likely to spend their time and energy training their doctoral students to follow in their own footsteps than they are to give individual feedback on poorly written undergraduate term papers.

So if improving SSU's faculty standards means moving to a more traditional, research-focused institution, the result will be less emphasis on undergraduate education, not more. It would mean larger classes. More teaching by low-paid, overworked teaching assistants and less by professors. More multiple-choice tests and fewer written papers. More processing students and less educating students.

As for those jobs we'd like to keep, it is true that many SSU professors would not meet U of I's tenure standards. Those standards assume a career based on research and publishing. SSU's professors simply do not have the time to meet U of I's research expectations, because we spend most of our time teaching. We teach more courses, evaluate more papers, and advise more students than U of I professors do.

But, believe it or not, many U of I faculty would not meet SSU's tenure standards either, because SSU expects professors to be teachers first and researchers second.

If a transfer of authority is inevitable, Springfield-area legislators should see to it that the legislation clearly spells out what kind of institution SSU is to become. That is not a little detail to be worked out later.

Will central Illinois residents be able to count on their family members going to a local university that has a commitment to quality undergraduate education?

Or will Springfield succumb to the lure of higher status even if that means forcing its own residents to go elsewhere for college or to abandon their plans entirely if they cannot afford higher tuition than SSU now charges?

These questions should be considered before the Legislature acts, rather than after.




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