Image Over Substance

Image Over Substance: CFA Responds to President Hogan’s Enrollment Management Plan

Introduction

The Enrollment Management Report recently commissioned by the President’s Office is a response to very real concerns about the reputation and success of UIUC, UIC, and UIS in the process of student applications and enrollment. The CFA agrees with the President’s Office in several aims: supporting access to quality, accessible education, maintaining the position of the UIUC campus while raising the profiles of UIS and UIC as well as protecting and increasing the quality and diversity of the student body at each of the university’s distinct institutions. Additionally, we share the stated goal, though one that is substantially unaddressed in this report, of making sure programs of study at our institutions can be completed with educational integrity in a timely fashion.

The President’s Office has responded to this report with skewed emphasis. Consolidating admissions is only one of the report’s recommendations (Recommendation 10) with no apparent emphasis in the document. However, that recommendation conflicts with other statements in the report:

  • that each campus has a unique identity
  • that colleges on individual campuses should coordinate with admissions
  • that each campus should co-ordinate admissions and financial aid.

Further, the report emphasizes increasing the numbers of underrepresented students while offering no meaningful or substantive plans for doing this.

The President’s Office: Centralization At All Costs

The report fails to show how each campus must contribute independently to the identity of the university as a whole. Instead, the document’s Chicago-centered approach to admissions completely overlooks the serving of rural and Central Illinoisans integral to the historical mission of the Urbana-Champaign campus. The President’s Office strategy is to pursue centralization of admissions at break-neck speed at the expense of other recommendations. The recent resignation of Lisa Troyer must raise concerns that the President’s Office is not acting in good faith. We thus have grave reservations on its ability to oversee admissions for all three campuses.

Partial, Superficial Solutions

Ultimately, this report offers only partial solutions to the problems it raises. The emphasis lies with changes in management and marketing with little attention paid to root causes of the problems it seeks to solve. The reviewers and those with whom they consulted at UIUC, UIC, and UIS appear to have assumed that application and enrollment have no relationship to staffing of programs, research support, course offerings, educational facilities, investment in educational technology, and other aspects of the allocation of resources to the core missions of the university. These questions are integral to student applications and enrollment, and crucial to successful and timely graduation.

EMP Ignores Concrete Problems that Affect Recruitment

The report ignores how programs across the campus of UIUC have been decimated by budget cuts, loss of tenure-stream faculty through recruitment and retirement, and in certain instances through deleterious changes in graduate student funding. Teaching facilities in many parts of campus are in shocking states of disrepair due to decades of deferred maintenance. Technology to support current modes of classroom engagement is unevenly distributed across campus. Without an aggressive and coherent plan to address these foundational issues, no amount of administrative streamlining and careful branding will establish the kind of solid footing for the present and future for which students, alumni, faculty, and administration collectively hope.

Ways to Make Real Progress

If the university invests significantly in rebuilding strength where excellent programs of continuing relevance have suffered and in building where new programming is needed to move into the future, then elements of this proposal should be adopted and other elements reconsidered for maximum effect. In this regard our proposals are as follows:

Establishing clear goals for student recruitment. The report suggests we need clear goals for the make-up of freshmen classes at each of the institutions and for the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups. On this issue CFA may offer qualified support to the contents of the report. These kinds of goals are probably useful in setting an agenda for the future, so long as the relationship between student admissions and educational and research programs is taken into account.

Recruitment of underrepresented students and faculty. The university should be strongly encouraged to consult and work strategically not only with high schools from Chicago, but also from high schools around the state to recruit students from under-represented backgrounds. The university administration also needs to work with the faculties and communities of each campus on this. We note UIUC undergraduates are 7% African-American compared with 15% African-American population for the state; Latina/o students are 7%, compared to 16% statewide. The figures for American Indian students at UIUC are miniscule.

UIUC has had very limited success retaining excellent faculty of color, and our community has had a number of high-profile, deeply problematic instances of discrimination and racially-motivated violence; neither of these makes it any easier to recruit students of color to our campus. As with other issues, the report fails to treat the recruitment of students of color as a problem of substance, suggesting only solutions based in administrative streamlining and marketing.

In addition, the administration should stop using language that treats students of color like chips in a statistical game of one-upsmanship with peer institutions. The term “diversity students,” which appears regularly throughout this document, is at best indicative of a lack of care in dealing with these issues, and at worst a demeaning objectification of students of color. Such attitudes come through consistently in the university administration’s attempts to address diversity issues on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community at large, and do not make recruitment any easier.

Moreover, the university should be encouraged to look at the issue of diversity in a larger and more sophisticated way. While recruitment of students of color should absolutely be a priority for the university system it would also be valuable in many ways to think about socio-economic status, family history of college education and so on as diversity issues.

Management of aid. The coordination of processes seems like an unalloyed good. It is fundamentally against our interests as a campus and system to have aid packages determined and communicated to students piecemeal and after the time at which such packages would help in recruitment.

Other parts of the report seem discoordinated or disingenuous:

Increasing integration between UIUC, UIC, and UIS in the enrollment management processes seems like a red herring. It may, indeed, save money and increase rates of application and acceptance, making us appear more selective, statistically; yet, its impact is bound to be marginal in comparison with the effect of investing in campus teaching, research, and service missions.

As in every case of centralization of functions that have historically been the province of the campuses, we should be open to the value of cost-savings, but argue strongly that such centralization should only extend to the mechanics of implementation and never to the content of decision-making.

The issue of pathways between campuses. At first this looks like a side issue of limited significance, but its potentially pernicious features should be highlighted. Faculty and students of UIUC have expressed concern that lowering distinctions between the three institutions in the U of I system will lead to a process of watering down the brand and value of the flagship campus. While this seems possible, a more likely outcome is that increased transfers between campuses, coupled with a mandate to grow incoming classes at UIS, will negatively impact completion rates at UIC and UIS. What may happen (as has been the case in the California State and UC systems) is that the smaller campuses will grow in populations of students enrolled for introductory and general education courses who intend to transfer to the flagship campus for the final two years and degree completion. This saps the system of reasons to invest in independent excellence in the smaller campuses, making them function more like glorified community colleges.

We are also concerned that expanded delivery of general education courses at UIC and UIS may lead to a weakening of humanities departments at UIUC.

Emphasizing admissions metrics is dangerous. This year’s admissions scandal at the university’s College of Law raises questions on over-emphasizing admissions metrics in the way that the Enrollment Management Report recommends. Recent experience has shown that specialized admissions professionals whose job performance is evaluated according to selectivity metrics can behave in dubiously ethical ways, massaging numbers to meet institutional targets in a way that has embarrassed our institution and harmed our students by diminishing the value of an Illinois degree. Given that the I-list debacle of 2009 has resulted in a “firewall” between admissions offices and administrators, the “admissions professionals” in a new, centralized office would likely be able to operate with little oversight. That could yield disastrous irregularities in admissions for the university system as a whole.

Need for study of graduation patterns. We must also note the limits of this report’s consideration of enrollment apart from a careful study of graduation rates and time to graduate. Problems in these two areas can be placed squarely at the feet of reduced faculty numbers and reduced support for graduate students. Our experience suggests that undergraduates find it increasingly difficult to register for the classes they need to graduate in a timely manner because programs are insufficiently staffed and funded. This leads to both immediate problems with time to degree, but over the long term also to negative image and problems with recruitment. This is not the “brand” we want.

Conclusion

The Campus Faculty Association is receptive to all but one of the twenty-one recommendations of the Enrollment Management Report. However, the President’s Office is pursuing one of these recommendations at the expense of the remaining twenty. We are strongly in favor of admissions and financial aid procedures better serving under-represented groups. But we also strongly believe that these goals cannot be advanced by divorcing admissions and academics. They are best achieved by greater coordination between the colleges and admissions offices on each of our three campuses, as the Enrollment Management Report recognizes in its recommendations on financial aid: “we recommend the current decentralized program remain in place and encourage financial aid to continue developing strong partnerships with each school or college to maximize available funds to entering students” (p. 14 and Recommendation 11).

The Enrollment Management Report points to the existing strengths of an Illinois degree in terms of return on investment (p. 18). That strength argues against radical changes likely to yield scandal-ridden admissions processes diminishing the value of an Illinois degree. We cannot endorse the counter-productive tunnel vision with which the President’s Office wishes to centralize admissions for the university system. That is not reform in the spirit of the Enrollment Management Report, and it does not seem like an effective way to achieve the many laudable goals articulated in the document.

—a report by the Campus Faculty Association, January 2012

For more information, contact Susan Davis, CFA Communication Officer
susangdavis@gmail.com

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