Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Open Letter to Eliza Nichols, Dean, School of Fine and Performing Arts, Columbia College Chicago

Dear Dean Nichols:

I'm an alumna and current part-time faculty at the arts college where you are an administrator. I'm one of many people who have been grieved, confused, and even angered by your decision to remove my chair, Randall Albers, from his post, effective Fall 2012.

Dean Nichols, your letter was full of glowing praise for Dr. Albers and his dedication to his students, his department and the college. It would seem that you know--although perhaps not as well as his students, colleagues and friends know--that Randy has been a consistent and dedicated force in his classrooms, helping young people to discover their voices as artists; that he has created countless opportunities for artists and writers to collaborate across disciplines, across schools and colleges, even across international borders; that he has been motivating and supportive, and often the driving force, of faculty development in the Fiction Writing Department; that he is a jewel in the crown of the Chicago literary scene; that he is, in a word, irreplaceable. Knowing all of this, I am flummoxed at how you can, and have, dismissed him so quickly and easily from his post as Chair of the Fiction Writing Department.

Yes, it's true, this Blueprint: Prioritization process is, not to put too fine a point on it, a clusterfuck. You've made recommendations about the School of Fine and Performing Arts that have been difficult for faculty, staff and students to understand, and not just in my department. Now the Provost's recommendations have been released, which are equally alarming, if not more. I look at her suggestions and believe my alma mater is taking swift and decisive steps away from its legacy and identity as an arts school and toward something else. But to bring this back home, the reality of combining writing departments has been an interesting one for many people to digest. While I believe profoundly in students' ability to work across disciplines in order to grow as artists, a change like this has the potential to be damaging in ways that are unclear, perhaps because this process has been so unclear. In my most recent faculty meeting, my colleagues and I intended to approach this impending change with open hearts and minds. It is an exciting time to be at Columbia, we were told. We must move forward in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation. Above all else, remember that we must do what is best for our students.

Dean Nichols, your actions have made our intentions extremely difficult.

If you were a student in my classroom, I would say, Eliza, consider your audience. You're writing to people who've just learned that the department that they know and love, and maybe even call home, is going to be changed into something else. Many of these people work here part-time trying to eke out a living while still maintaining and feeding their creative pursuits; many of them are working without a salary commensurate with their skills, and even more of them are working without an employment contract or benefits: without health insurance or retirement plans; they are here because they care about teaching, because they care about their students, because someone--because Randy Albers--cared about them enough to help them grow into the faculty that makes Columbia such a great place. Right now many of your readers are confused and frustrated, and this Prioritization process at the college has been, despite yours or anyone's best effort, maddeningly opaque. These people are most certainly feeling defensive, and they may be feeling vulnerable or threatened. You are about to tell them that their leader will not be returning to his post, and because you haven't said why, you're creating a lot of mystery around this.  How do you do communicate with these people, Eliza? Do you send a letter to their offices, so that it will be impossible to distribute it before the close of business on a Friday? Do you fill it with praise for Randy Albers, but omit any explanation of this decision, making your praise of Randy and his efforts seem at best like you're trying too hard and at worst like flattery? What are you trying to do here, Eliza? Do you mean to communicate to your colleagues that, despite this time of confusion and transition, they are valued members of the Columbia College community, or do you mean to alienate them and undermine their roles and their presence by robbing them of their leader?

But you're not a student in my class, Dean Nichols. I can't challenge your craft or your process. But as an audience member of your letter, and as a faculty member at an institution of which you are a steward, I can say this: I feel alienated and undermined by this behavior. Given the reality that my department is changing shape, I have a tough time perceiving Randy's dismissal as chair as anything other than a calculated and deliberate act of destruction, and as an action purposefully linked to the Prioritization process. If you want to create confusion, infighting and destruction among a group of people, you take out their leadership. I don't know, Dean, if this was the plan all along, if this is just another step in the Prioritization process that seems determined to destroy many people, relationships and college institutions, all in the name of "best practices" and "reallocation of funds". I don't know if you've chosen to remove Randy from his Chairpersonship in order to make it easier to create a new Creative Writing department, because you know what a strong, dynamic and successful leader Randy is of his faculty. I don't know if the college hopes to silence and disenfranchise as many of us in the Fiction Writing Department as possible. I don't know if you've removed Randy from his post as chair in order to better position him to assume a role of leadership once our new Creative Writing Department is created. Help us understand, Dean Nichols. Make clear to us your actions and their motivations. If your devotion to the students is as true as you say it is, if this process is about the students, then you owe them an explanation. If your respect and admiration for Randy Albers is as true as you say it is, then he deserves better--and God knows he has earned better--than for you to treat him as a casualty of Prioritization, and you owe his faculty an explanation.

I want transparency. I want to know why Randy Albers was dismissed from his post as Chair. I want Randy to have a seat at the table where the choices and decisions are made about how to craft this new Creative Writing Department.


Jessica M. Young, MFA
Part-Time Faculty, Fiction Writing Department
P-Fac member
Class of 2008

1 comment:

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Good for you. Where else has this letter gone?