Lack of support leads to program’s demise

Editor’s note: The following column was submitted by Patricia Canon, David Shavit, Andrew Torok who are faculty members of the Department of Library & Information Studies.

On Friday, March 27th, NIU Provost Kendall Baker announced the phase-out of a Master of Arts program and the related closing of the Department of Library & Information Studies (DLIS). To our knowledge, this is a first in the history of NIU. Never has an entire department been closed. This action, therefore, has precedent-setting implications for other NIU academic units. News reports to date are accurate, as far as they go. But we want you to have more of the facts.

NIU’s position is that the university was forced to cut the program by a recalcitrant accrediting body. The university is financially strapped, and this is outside its control. The American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation (ALA/COA), therefore, is the culprit. To ALA, on the other hand, the villains reside within NIU’s administration. Each would ask you to believe the other is to blame. But this outcome could only have resulted from a lack of support from both bodies. There are a doubtless number of factors that led to this decision. Our intent here is not to point a finger at any individual or group. We are registering our frustration at a situation beyond our control and our anger at what has amounted to a gag rule we were forced to endure, as we stood by and watched a valued and active program being scrapped.

The department offers only one degree: the M.A. Although all of our students are graduate students, not all of them are in the master’s program. Reports thus far have mentioned 181 current master’s students and stated unequivocally that all of them will be able to complete degree requirements during the phase-out that commences with the fall semester and ends in May of 1994. An official press release estimates the number of students-at-large (SALs) taking courses on any one semester at 25. An accurate current count of master’s students is 185. During the current semester, 68 non-majors (SALs and students from other NIU degree programs) are enrolled in courses in the department. They account for 101 slots in our Spring ‘92 classes. The decision to close this department has, therefore, serious implications for students who are not enrolled in degree-granting programs, a situation common in departments campus-wide, particularly those dealing with students seeking certificates or endorsements.

Another issue is the impact upon students enrolled in degree programs not widely available elsewhere. The assertion that all master’s students will be able to complete their degree requirements by May 1994 is highly improbable. Over 70 percent of our majors attend classes part-time; most take 3-4 years to complete the degree. Many work full-time in area libraries and information centers. Most of these nontraditional (average age 35+), predominantly female (approximately 85 percent) students have families, as well, and commute from the suburbs. The average commute is an hour or more one way. What advice would you give a student who is hard-pressed to take one course a semester and is presently about midway through the 39 hour program?

We’re not only the smallest department around (smaller than programs in other campus departments), but a real bargain in terms of dollars. During the 1991 calendar year, 50 students completed master’s degrees in our program. Another group of 20+ are expected to graduate this semester. Over the past five years, 89 percent of these graduates have been women. Ten years ago, the department was supporting an M.A. program a third this size with the same number of faculty positions—actually with more, as we are now short one position.

The total budget for the current academic year is under $30,000. Faculty salaries within the department are among the lowest at NIU and in our field. There are five full-time faculty (including the department chair); four are tenured. Until last August, there were six of us. That sixth position was critical, not only to overall size, but also because of the specialization it represented. Already threatened with a loss of accreditation unless a seventh faculty position (promised since 1983) was added, we were faced with almost certain annihilation when our school specialist resigned just before the fall semester began. Despite reports that there would be limited exceptions to the hiring freeze in the event that a resignation or retirement would seriously jeopardize a department or program, we were not permitted to replace this crucial position. The argument can be made (and has been posited) that, considering the unrealistic demands being made by the ALA/COA, an exception to the freeze would have been futile. Of course, the reverse argument is that denial of the replacement was tantamount to a lack of commitment to sustain the program.

In our opinion, NIU’s administration is correct in the assertion that we are being harassed by our profession’s accrediting group. Nonetheless, the university did have recourse to appeal COA’s arbitrary actions. There are at least two organizations to which NIU could appeal, yet we have been informed that the university does not intend to file or pursue such an appeal. The first, and most likely, of these is the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation, the umbrella organization overseeing the many accrediting groups. A second possible venue for appeal is the Executive Board of the Library Association. There is a mass of evidence to support the contention that the COA failed to abide by its own rules. If NIU’s insistence upon wanting to maintain the program and claim of being forced into this position by outside forces, is honest, why not fight back?

We leave it to you to weigh the facts and consider the worthiness of a small program providing a valuable service to this region. The cost to NIU of keeping us would be minimal. Demand is assuredly there. Productivity is not at issue. A formal complaint might have a far-reaching impact on the heavy-handed tactics of some accrediting bodies. Yet our demise appears to be a “done deal.”