Slow Down the UIS Bandwagon
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
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
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
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
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
Will central Illinois residents be able to count on their family members
going to a local university that has a commitment to quality undergraduate
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
These questions should be considered before the Legislature acts, rather