Columbia College president Warrick Carter
Columbia College president Warrick Carter

Security was so tight at Columbia College last week for President Warrick Carter’s annual State of the College address, he could have been delivering the State of the Union. Columbia security staff, bolstered by uniformed private guards, were stationed both outside and inside the single open entrance at 916 S. Wabash, where Carter was to be speaking on the fourth floor. They were checking for college IDs.

I didn’t make it to the elevator.

That was disappointing, since the event was posted on the college’s website as “open to the public.” And neither a printout of the posting nor press credentials made a dent in the marching orders: no outsiders would be allowed, least of all any outside press.

In fact, just a week earlier, Carter had written to the faculty, cautioning them against talking to the media (or to students) about the hot-button topic on campus—an institution-wide, consultant-driven review process with the unlovely title “prioritization.” Unhappy with publicity it had already inspired, the leader of the school whose mission is education in the areas of “arts, communications, and public information” wanted to put a lid on the conversation.

So I had to wait until the next morning to hear Carter slip out of presidential mode and tell a student questioning his $650,000 annual compensation, “Oh, shut up.”

That and everything else that transpired at the State of the College address—including his apology to that student—was captured on an audio recording and promptly uploaded to the cloud sphere, where anyone at all can listen in.

Censorship is so last century.

Prioritization was officially launched last fall but actually got started earlier, after Columbia brought in consultant Robert C. Dickeson, author of a tome on the subject (Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services), and not long after provost Steven Kapelke’s abrupt and still unexplained departure (after a decade on the job) last May. Carter told the audience at the State of the College address that the prioritization process is necessary to keep abreast of change, be competitive, and—most urgently—stay afloat. Columbia, which is 97 percent dependent on tuition income, has seen enrollment drop from 12,500 in 2008 to 11,600 now, he said. With tuition set to rise from $20,000 this year to $21,000 in the fall, Carter noted, every 50 students lost means a million-dollar drop in the budget. This year, he added, “$17 million had to be cut from the budget,” and “if our enrollment drops next year as projected, we will [then] have $31 million less.”

It doesn’t help that during its years of go-go growth, Columbia was an eager player in the then-hot real estate market, expanding its campus to 22 buildings, and becoming the South Loop’s largest nongovernmental property owner. Now that enrollment is going in the other direction, “we can’t close these buildings,” Carter told the students. “We’ve got the same basic [operating] expenses.”

In this situation, he said, “We’ve got to discontinue those things that don’t serve the college well.”

And that’s where things get sticky.

Fiction writing department chair Randy Albers was removed as chair after 16 years in the position, then reinstated.
Fiction writing department chair Randy Albers was removed as chair after 16 years in the position, then reinstated.

On February 28, interim provost Louise Love released a set of recommendations that called for eliminating some of Columbia’s most unique and highly visible programs, like the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Center for Black Music Research. Love also called for folding Columbia’s vaunted fiction writing department—home to the story workshop method, one of the school’s major calling cards—into a new, broader entity. When she then dumped longtime fiction writing department chair Randy Albers from the post he’d held for 16 years (and gave English department chair Ken Daley the same treatment), she sparked a protest that took off on campus and on the Internet, rapidly sprouting an “Albers for Chair” petition and a letter of “grave concern” from the executive committee of the faculty senate.

Love’s actions seemed to confirm fears that changes that could erase Columbia’s distinctive character were not just under discussion in some ostensibly transparent process, but already under way. Suddenly suspicions that prioritization is a means of further concentrating power in the hands of the administration seemed more justified. So did concerns that the fiercely independent, tradition-busting, largely adjunct-taught school would be turned into something much more corporate and ordinary. On March 13, in the face of heated opposition, Love did an about-face, reinstating Albers (and Daley) as department chair for a year that still promises to be a period of transition.

The fate of the jazz ensemble, the CBMR, and numerous other Columbia programs— including the Story Week festival that Albers founded 16 years ago—remains dubious.

Last week a faculty committee released its own recommendations, which while sparing the CBMR, are more sweeping and philosophically radical than anything the provost specified. Most striking among them: a proposal to back away from Columbia’s tradition of proudly open enrollment to a “more selective policy for undergraduate admissions” that would focus on “those who are academically prepared for success.”

According to the report, “Columbia’s low graduation and retention rates—now clearly visible in the college application process to every prospective student and his/her parents—have brought the crisis in Higher Education directly to our door.”

Carter reminded his audience that Columbia’s slogan is “create change,” although “we’re scared to death of it.” Faculty members, now instructed to keep their mouths shut about prioritization and to direct any media inquiries to the college’s associate vice president of public relations, say they’re only scared of not getting the change right. Carter and the Columbia board are scheduled to make final decisions this summer.