Afraid To Be Different Since 2014

When asked why parents of children affected by CPS school closings haven’t registered their kids in a new school, Antoine Dobine, a West Pullman Elementary school parent, told WBEZ’s Linda Lutton, “I don’t like the way they were so gung-ho and, ‘Register your child now!  Register your child now!’  Register my child?  You just closed the school!  You ain’t gonna let us mourn?  Can’t we mourn?  I mean, this is a big loss.”

I can’t even imagine what Mr. Dobine is going through; seeing a neighborhood school close has to be heartbreaking and especially frustrating given City Hall's cronyism and wasteful spending.

But I completely identified with his sense of despair and sorrow.  Because, when he asked, You ain't gonna let us mourn?  Can't we mourn?  I mean, this is a big loss, I immediately connected it to the sense of loss I -- and many others at Columbia College Chicago -- feel and have felt over the past eight years.  It's a feeling that what CCC stands for, what it has achieved, is suddenly and irrevocably going down the drain.

Why?

If the current administration's tenure could be condensed into a movie pitch, here's what it would sound like...

Administration oversees a doubling of the school's South Loop real estate during the height of the real estate bubble (hmmm...still a question of who profited off of those deals...holding companies dissolve so very quickly), multiple tuition raises (I've spoken to no less than a dozen parents who shrug their shoulders and say, 'We simply can't afford it'), recession hits, enrollment drops, a seemingly deep well of cash suddenly dries up, the administration panics, a 'prioritization' plan is hastily implemented,  the college president tells a student to 'shut up' on camera, strange bedfellows emerge, department chairs fired, professors emeriti kicked out of offices, NLRB rulings against the college, a tone-deaf board of directors, half a dozen lawsuits filed by former professors against the college, chilly (if not downright freezing) relations between adjunct faculty and the administration,  wholesale department cuts, departments merged with absolutely no clear plan or understanding of the merging departments' cultures, rumors and guesses flit and fly, faculty morale tanks, a purposeful darkness descends upon the land...

Depressing, huh?  Hell, yeah.  Columbia's administrative track record just might be the War and Peace of agonizing miscalculations and poor decisions.  If you want some deliriously clear-headed history, The Reader's Deanna Isaacs investigative grip on CCC's administrative bumbling might just be the tightest in the city.  She's been the only Chicago journalist willing to dip her feet in the muck of what's been going on inside this great institution.

***

But let's shift focus to the most current developments and another reason why I'm mourning.  CCC's Fiction Writing Department has been a great place to work -- even for adjuncts -- for a hell of a long time.  Our students kick serious ass.  We publish award-winning publications.  Our approach to teaching writing is unlike any other institution in the world -- and we're proud of that.  It's a key reason our more than 300 Fiction Writing majors choose CCC.

For fall 2013, the Fiction Writing Department will be blended into what the administration is calling a Creative Writing Department. Good idea.  Yes!  Great idea.  Really.  Wholehearted thumb's up on that decision.

The problem?  It's all happening too fast.  The administration is rushing.  And, when people rush, you get the idea that you're being sold  that storied piece of swampland we all try to avoid.

No one in the administration has shared their vision of how this merger might actually work.  And, this, like every poorly implemented corporate merger in history, has fueled rumors and guesses.  We fear that the way we teach writing is under attack.  We fear that our individualness will be threatened.  We fear that we're being homogenized to look like other institutions simply because the administration has not taken enough interest or time to understand what it is we really do.

In the end, though, we haven't been let in on the plan...if there is one.

Another problem?  The administration asked faculty to recommend which school this new department might fall under.  The administration's response?

I did not find the arguments about what is customary or not customary for departments of creative writing to carry weight one way or the other.  Neither was I persuaded that identification with the Fine Arts is any more important than identification with the Liberal Arts.

Here's what I heard:  your arguments were, in the end, not important nor were they taken into consideration.

Ouch.  This is only one example of what the faculty has been dealing with for the past eight years.

Sound familiar, Mr. Dobine?

***

Every blockbuster has a hero.  Enter CCC's incoming president Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim.  Here's what Dr. Kim had to say about a merger he shepherded at Arizona State University in 2008-2009 (on Oppenheim TV).  Note Dr. Kim's emphasis on transparency in this particular quote:

Many places around the country took the approach of 'reducing.'  Arizona State University took a very different approach.  We did some very large reorganizations which helped to capture some of the key visionary pieces of the University.  The idea of combining two colleges was to promote the idea of the importance of the arts, creative activity, creative thought in this large research University. It sounded relatively easy on paper.  The challenge, of course, of taking two large institutions and combining them is, very often, the fact that institutions have developed their own very unique cultures and trying to merge cultures is very challenging.  So I found the process was one of first getting a clear sense of how those cultures were different and looking for the connections and building on those connections...and that was a process of experimentation.  I have to give a lot of credit to our faculty who were very patient and very open to this experience.  But even more important to me, was the idea that, if we successfully achieved the merger but did not promote the idea of looking for the opportunity inherent in the merger, we would have accomplished nothing.  It would have simply been an administrative move.

And this:

A key piece of academic leadership is understanding where expertise is; who's expert at what and not pretending to be an expert at something you're not. I think that's really important.

Hallelujah!  Enter calvary!

After years of trying to peek through an administrative finish so opaque it would take a sledgehammer to break through it, is a savior firmly seated in the office of the president?  I hope so because, after nearly a decade of nonsense, of not knowing who or what to believe, the hits to our collective psyches -- faculty, staff and students -- have been brutal.  We don't know, as my mother says, 'If we're coming or going.'

All I know is that I don't want to be wearing this t-shirt:  Columbia College Chicago, AFRAID TO BE DIFFERENT SINCE 2014.

But if I have to, I will.

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    Christine Rice

    My most recent fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in THE URBANESS, THE GOOD MEN PROJECT, CELLSTORIES.NET and F MAGAZINE. My audio essays have been produced by Chicago Public Radio’s daily magazine EIGHT FORTY-EIGHT. I also manage an online lit mag (yes...another lit mag) called HYPERTEXTMAG.COM. My feature stories have appeared in the THE GOOD MEN PROJECT, CHICAGO TRIBUNE and Detroit’s METRO TIMES and METRO PARENT newspapers. I’ve been an adjunct professor in the Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department since 1992, have chaired the Fiction Writing Department’s Young Authors writing contest since 2000 and am the faculty editor of Columbia College Chicago’s student anthology HAIR TRIGGER.

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