UIC College of Education dean Alfred Tatum Credit: Jenny Fontaine/UIC Office of Public Affairs

UIC professor Therese Quinn lobbed a little bomb at her alma mater, the UIC College of Education, last week.

The college had selected Quinn, who teaches in UIC’s School of Art and Art History and heads its program in Museum and Exhibition Studies, as an honored alumnus. She would participate in this year’s commencement ceremony (held last Thursday) and receive an award at a College of Education gala benefit event the following night.

The plans didn’t allow for the honorees to speak, however. The college said it had dropped the usual time for speeches to allow everyone to “network.” And that bothered Quinn, who had something important to say.

Quinn says students and faculty in the College of Education had asked her if she’d use her moment in the spotlight to call attention to problems in the college’s pioneering Urban Education program, the four-year undergraduate major for elementary school teachers.

The Urban Education program has a primary goal of recruiting students who’ve come through city schools and preparing them to go back into those schools as highly qualified teachers and inspiring role models. In Chicago, that means more Latinx and black teachers and especially more males of color.

But a UIC group calling itself the Decolonize Education Coalition says the college is doing the opposite: pushing students of color, especially black students, out of the Urban Education program. They say the college fails to prepare the students for increasingly difficult state tests for licensure, and then redirects them to a Human Development and Learning program that keeps them in the College of Education for four years without qualifying them to teach. According to statements on the group’s Tumblr, their attempts to get the administration to address these issues have mostly been met with “a culture of silencing.”

Quinn, who earned a PhD in the college’s once-celebrated Curriculum Studies program, says these charges are particularly galling in light of the college’s mission-driven commitment to educational equity. When she learned that she’d be effectively gagged at the ceremony honoring her, she decided the best way to bring attention to these issues would be to decline the honor.

“Accepting the award and participating in related events would be an implicit endorsement of the COE, and based on the evidence offered by current students, that validation is not warranted,” she wrote in a “thank you, but no thank you” open letter.

“The COE seems to have abandoned its commitment to the preparation of Black and other teachers of color,” Quinn noted, citing low numbers admitted and retained, a lack of institutional support to get them through licensure, and what she called a “devastating” strategy of “bait-and-switch” into a “non-certification undergraduate program with no clear employment pathway.”

She also pointed to a drop in students of color in the college’s PhD programs, and the end of a policy of “conditional acceptance” for students who can’t yet meet the state requirements, observing that the only way she herself got into the COE graduate school was through such a conditional admittance. In addition, she charged, the college “has nearly decimated and seems determined to destroy Curriculum Studies,” whose faculty formerly included William Watkins and Bill Ayers.

The letter got attention. In an interview last week, College of Education dean Alfred Tatum told me he recently reversed himself on what Quinn called “conditional acceptance,” bowing to “pushback” from his faculty and restoring a longer time frame for students trying to meet the state requirements. And while he says there’s a “large percentage of Latinas” in the Urban Education program, he agrees that the number of black students is small. In last week’s Urban Education graduating class of 47, for example, 27 were students of color, but only four were African-American. None were African-American and male.

“It is dismal, the number of African-American teachers we are recruiting and graduating annually,” Tatum says.

But, he adds, it’s not a problem unique to UIC. Tatum says the shrinking proportion of black teachers and especially a near absence of black men in elementary education is a national dilemma. “A lot of our young men find school to be a hostile place. They don’t see the power of being a male teacher, and in many cases have not experienced it. And the assault on public education has been so intense that the idea of becoming a teacher is devalued.”

At the same time, he notes, “everyone’s trying to diversify.” The highest-performing students, especially black men, are also being recruited by the Colleges of Engineering, Business, and Medicine. “Even if I open these doors wide, and provide supports, we have not seen men rushing in,” he says.

According to Tatum, it was necessary to “rightsize” PhD cohorts at the college, which “all have fewer students now,” while programs like Curriculum Studies are having to “align with the college’s growth orientation.”

And about those state requirements, which faculty members say are keeping some great potential teachers out of the profession and should be challenged? Tatum said in an update this week that he and other deans “feel that Colleges of Education are in better positions [than the state] to assess students’ readiness and preparation.”

Meanwhile, “We’re now looking at ways to provide additional supports,” he said. “We’re not a perfect place, but we’re striving through our imperfections.”  v