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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006 05:38 pm

Growing Pains

A fight to define its public-affairs mission has some wondering where UIS is heading


On a brisk late-summer day, two blond girls wearing university sweatshirts linger in a campus coffeehouse, sipping frappuccinos.

Nearby, a pair of young women converse in Chinese and a young man with the physique of a small forward, sporting a hoodie with the university logo, flashes a peace sign to a friend.

It’s a perfectly normal college scene, one that could be found on a campus anywhere in the nation — which is exactly why it seems so unusual at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

When the school first opened, as Sangamon State University, in the fall of 1970, the typical student was over the age of 30, and only upper-division students — college juniors and seniors — could enroll. There were no permanent classroom buildings (much less a hip coffeehouse) or academic departments. Students majored in programs such as justice and the social order; instead of letter grades, they received written evaluations — and the entire SSU experience had an exciting, experimental feel.

Today, that university is barely recognizable.

Since Chancellor Richard Ringeisen’s arrival in 2000, the pace of change has been especially dizzying.

In less than six years, UIS has become a full-fledged four-year university, built on-campus housing, expanded the menu of course offerings and majors, recently received approval for a $16.2 million recreation and athletic center, and, once again, there’s talk of opening a law school. Today, enrollment approaches 5,000 — a record.

But with change comes controversy.

During recent discussions to develop a strategic plan for the university, some administration officials floated the idea of eliminating the autonomous College of Public Affairs and Administration.

Cost-cutting was the reason given, but many saw another motive.

The proposal, some faculty members and students say, seemed an effort to reduce the importance of public-affairs programs at the university, and turn the university into more of a traditional liberal-arts-based institution.

Ultimately the proposal went nowhere, but the discussions were intense, the debate heated.

And it’s not over.

What’s at stake, say administrators, faculty, and students, is the kind of place UIS will become — whether it stays true to the public-service mandate the Legislature gave it in the late 1960s or continues to evolve into just another higher-education institution that prepares folks for the job market.

At first, Sangamon State didn’t seem to be in any hurry to grow up.

Early faculty, many of whom were plucked right out of graduate school during the late 1960s and early ’70s, were recruited through ads in Rolling Stone and Radical Teacher.

“There was what I call a ’60s sensibility,” says professor Pat Langley, who joined the SSU faculty in 1977 at the age of 29.

“It was a very lively place — intellectually lively, very vibrant.”

It was mostly SSU’s unique interdisciplinary approach that attracted Langley, a native of Omaha, Neb.

In those early days, classes were small and students called professors by their first names. There was one faculty dean, and teachers’ offices weren’t segregated by academic department, she says.

“There was great camaraderie, partly because [students] were our own age,” she says. “Half the students I taught were at least my age and older. I suppose, in some ways, they were more our contemporaries.”

The university was a laboratory, still trying to figure out its identity.

When it was birthed, the Legislature gave SSU a mandate to be the public-affairs university of Illinois. It made sense: Springfield is the capital city of a major state.

Even in those early days, Langley says, there were lively debates about how to define public affairs.

“There were multiple complex — both contradictory and consistent — definitions of public affairs that were all out there at the same time. In other words, it was messy — but that, to me, that’s more like reality.”

The debate was never resolved.

“There was no closure, no ‘Oh, here’s the answer for now and for all eternity’ of what public affairs means,” she says. “It was an ongoing dialogue, and that was great. There weren’t clear answers, and that was good, too.”

In those early days, faculty took a more expansive view of public affairs. During the early 1970s, which corresponded to the Nixon and Ford presidencies and the end of the Vietnam War, Larry Golden taught classes on the need for war-crime trials and held a forum on the crisis in confidence in government.

“The university wasn’t exactly a place of comfort for the establishment,” says Golden, now emeritus professor of political studies and legal studies.

“Ask older people in Springfield, they still think of Sangamon State University as full of crazy radical people,” he says, “and, to some degree, it was true.”

Back in those days, public affairs was about fighting for social justice, and it wasn’t uncommon for activist luminaries such as Julian Bond, Vine Deloria Jr., Clarence Mitchell Jr., and even Communist Party official Angela Davis to be invited to speak to SSU undergrads.

There’s a much narrower definition today, with public affairs meaning service mainly to the apparatus of state government, including the Legislature, Golden says.

Back in 2000, then-professors Dennis Fox and Ron Sakolsky blasted the evolution, or devolution, in the university’s mission in an essay titled “From ‘Radical University’ to Handmaiden of the Corporate State.”

“What was once an intimate community of scholars and activists,” they wrote, “has become, like so many other campuses, simply a human resource training and allocation platform for business and state government interests.”

Sakolsky, an author and activist whose latest book is Creating Anarchy, now resides in Canada; Dennis Fox, a retired professor of legal studies and psychology, now lives in the Boston area.

Nowadays, one would be hard pressed to find students engaged in acts of protest against the Iraq war and other policies of President George W. Bush’s administration, and in large part this is because faculty no longer lead students in this regard, Golden says. With the pressures of earning tenure, few are able or willing, he adds.

For Langley, who teaches women’s studies and legal studies, public affairs has very broad connotations and can include the humanities, physical sciences, or even business.

Although the UIS ecologists overseeing Emiquon Field Station, one the nation’s largest floodplain-restoration projects, might view their work as biology, Langley believes that it also falls under the mantle of public affairs.

In that regard, she echoes UIS administration officials, who say that public affairs has been rearticulated in new, not necessarily narrower ways.

Like Langley, Ringeisen singles out the Emiquon station as an example of how the university carries on its original public-affairs mandate. The Downstate Innocence Project, which Golden co-founded, is another example, according to the chancellor.

Additionally, Ringeisen sees their legislative-internship program as another point of pride.

Ringeisen says it’s a mistake to see UIS as having the same mission it did in 1970: “Are we a public-affairs university? Our top five majors are: accounting, ecology, educational leadership, computer science, and business administration.

“What we have is a broad-based education so that you will be a better public servant, a better scientist, or better teacher.”

The jewel in the crown of UIS’ public-affairs programming is the Center for State Policy and Leadership.

The center encompasses two institutes, a public-radio station, a monthly magazine, a survey-research office, and the school’s graduate public-service-internship program and hosts forums, lecture series, and other special events.

The hiring of Anthony Halter in August as the center’s first permanent director in three years demonstrates that UIS’ commitment to public affairs is as strong as ever, says former acting director Barbara Ferrara.

She adds that what was formerly a mandate has permeated all aspects of campus life, to the point that public affairs has become institutionalized in every aspect of the UIS culture.

“Perhaps some of the language is different, but one couldn’t argue that there’s been a decline in public affairs,” Ferrara says.

The varying definitions of public affairs reflect a deeper struggle over the direction of the university that came amid efforts to develop a strategic plan.

In 2004, Ringeisen named a 25-member committee to develop the plan, a roadmap to the future. The committee, made up of students, faculty, and administration representatives, worked together for about a year-and-a-half.

To say that the discussions became quite intense would be an understatement, several committee members agree — and, thanks in part to Langley, one of the university’s three longest-serving faculty members, much of the debate centered on public affairs.

“It would be very fair to say that throughout the 15 to 18 months, that the subject of public affairs was the subject of much discussion,” says Ed Wojcicki, associate chancellor for constituent relations, who served as Ringeisen’s representative to the committee.

So contentious were the discussions, it took the committee quite a while to figure out what they wanted to say — in fact, more than 20 drafts were revised before the groups agreed on the final language. “UIS will be a premier small public liberal-arts university” has become the mantra of just about everyone drawing a university paycheck.

Getting there wasn’t easy, though.

Throughout the process, committee members quibbled over the difference between public affairs and public-affairs activities.

“Things got very nitpicky on every level,” says Samantha Drews, president of the UIS Student Government Association.

Drews, who attended about half of the committee’s meeting, says there appeared to be considerable animosity, with some members feeling that their academic philosophies were coming under attack.

Langley argued that the committee wasn’t paying enough attention to the university’s historic public-affairs mandate or its location in the capital city.

Things became even more heated when top administration officials floated a proposal that looked to many like an attempt to eliminate the university’s heart and soul: the College of Public Affairs and Administration.

UIS comprises four colleges: Liberal Arts and Sciences, Business and Management, Public Affairs and Administration, and Education and Human Services.

According to Marya Leatherwood, associate vice chancellor and director of enrollment management, the number of students in the College of Public Affairs and Administration has increased in recent years, in part because of the shifting around of several majors. Criminal justice, for example, was taken out of the College of Education and Human Services.

Enrollment in the College of Public Affairs and Administration has increased by 4.5 percent since 1996, the first year the University of Illinois controlled the Springfield campus.

Meanwhile, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has the seen the greatest expansion in the same time period, almost double, because of the increasing number of online students.

Why eliminate the College of Public Affairs and Administration?

Ringeisen says the proposal was driven by money. Replacing the former dean of the college — Glen Cope, who in 2004 accepted a position as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Missouri-St. Louis — would cost roughly $130,000 per year. The university could hire two professors for that amount.

The issue was reorganization, not reallocation: Combining the public-affairs school with the College of Education and Human Services, the smallest college, was a prudent move, Ringeisen explains.

“If there was a College of Art and Pottery someplace — and it was small and didn’t have a dean, in terrible, terrible budget times — I think any president, chancellor, or provost would have said, ‘Look, is there a way to use this opportunity to work more efficiently?’ ”

Harry Berman, who as provost serves as the university’s top academic officer, also argues that there are important links between programs in the colleges that can be capitalized on. Social work and education, for example, are inextricably intertwined with matters of political science, public policy, and public administration.

Ringeisen also says he envisioned the merged college’s having the words “public affairs” somewhere in its name.

The proposal made people nervous.

Pinky Wassenberg, a professor of political studies who became the college’s dean after the proposal was dropped, says that, without fail, whenever someone leaves there’s talk of academic reorganization. Still, Wassenberg was worried, she says.

“I was a little concerned, because the College of Public Affairs and Administration is important to UIS,” Wassenberg says. “We needed to stay independent,” Wassenberg says.

As it turned out, that was also the sentiment on campus.

This February, the Student Government Association passed a resolution opposing the move, and several alumni also voiced their concerns to Wassenberg about the merger, she says.

Langley calls the merger talk a mistake that managed to catch people’s attention.

“If anyone was sleeping at the wheel, that woke them up.”

When the strategic-planning committee finally finished its work and the plan was unveiled in March, the end result wasn’t as dire as pessimists predicted.

The phrase “public affairs” ended up in the document more than 30 times.

Other compromises were reached as well.

“From its location in the state capital, UIS shapes and informs public policy, trains tomorrow’s leaders, and enriches its learning environment through a wide range of public affairs activities, programs, and organizations,” the document reads.

Under the strategic-goals section of the strategic plan, “With its location in the state capital, UIS has always had a special emphasis on public affairs, citizen engagement, and effecting societal change.”

Langley, for one, says she’s mostly satisfied with the final product.

“When things get uncomfortable enough, people change to make it work, and we came up with solutions we wouldn’t have thought of if it weren’t for that friction,” she says.

Underscoring that spirit of compromise, the chancellor himself reaffirmed the university’s public-affairs commitment during this year’s convocation address in August.

To an audience of students and current and new faculty, Ringeisen said, “We remain committed to our tradition in strong public-affairs programming. Our location in the state capital is one of our strengths, and we will continue to do what no other Illinois university is in a position to do.”

Langley says she was pleased that Ringeisen made the statement in a public forum. “We are all, at this point, on the same page — and that’s a good thing.”

But Langley won’t be around forever — and neither will Ringeisen, for that matter.

When they leave, will what’s left of the old Sangamon State mission disappear altogether?

Shannon Carter, a public-administration graduate student who has worked closely with Langley, thinks so.

“Unfortunately, when people like Pat Langley leave, I don’t believe that UIS will ever hear the words ‘public affairs’ again,” Carter says.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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