By Shannon Vicic
It's letter-writing time again.
At last week's meeting of the Urbana-Champaign Senate, James Robinson, chair of the Budget Committee, urged students and faculty and staff members to write letters to Gov. Jim Edgar and the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) in support of the university's fiscal year 1998 budget request.
For the past three years, the senate has called upon the campus community to write letters supporting the university's budget requests to the state, and in each of those years the governor and state legislature adopted IBHE budget recommendations without making any additional cuts.
"To those who wrote in the past, I thank you and encourage you to do so once more," Robinson said. "To those who haven't done so in the past, I urge you to make this the year you do write. These letters are effective. They are taken seriously."
Robinson's call for letters was part of a Budget Committee proposal designed to show the senate's support of the fiscal year 1998 budget. The proposal, passed by the senate, commends the IBHE, the governor and the general assembly for their support of the university through their adoption of the fiscal year 1997 university budget request and urges each of those groups to fully fund the university's 1998 request.
That request calls for a 6.98 percent increase in the university's operating budget over the current fiscal year, including $4.8 million for retaining key faculty on the Urbana-Champaign campus, a 4 percent increase in faculty and staff salaries at the university, and $6.4 million for facilities renovation.
If the budget request is fully funded, it would permit the university to make "a serious dent" in its backlog of repairs and renovations and would help bring faculty salaries at UIUC in line with those at peer universities, Robinson said.
In other business, the senate met as a committee of the whole to discuss an interim report by the Task Force on Graduate Education. The task force was appointed by Chancellor Michael Aiken to define key issues in graduate education, recommend policies to enhance the excellence of graduate programs, and establish an ongoing process for promoting program quality.
Senate Council Vice Chair Richard Schacht, who presided over the meeting in the absence of Aiken, Provost Larry Faulkner and Senate Council Chair Thomas Conry said that the committee of the whole discussion represented a revival of a senate meeting practice of discussing important campus issues in an open forum.
In a brief report to the senate on the task force's findings, Charles Tucker, co-chair of the task force, highlighted a few of the task force's recommendations, including:
The development of a new system of time-to-degree limits for graduate students. New graduate degree time limits would be developed for each department and program so that students would be required to complete their programs of study in a reasonable amount of time. "We need to make sure we have a culture in which students and faculty are working together to see that students are moving steadily through their programs," Tucker said.
The introduction of policies and procedures for evaluating graduate program quality. The Graduate College would be responsible for conducting periodic evaluations of graduate programs, and individual graduate programs also would be responsible for regularly evaluating themselves. According to the report, evaluation guidelines would incorporate "objective measures of graduate program performance and quality."
The definition and justification of program sizes. When calculating target enrollment levels, departments would be asked to consider, among other factors, the job market for graduates of their programs.
The report's recommendations concerning graduate program evaluation sparked the most discussion. Although most faculty members didn't object to the idea of graduate program evaluation, several voiced concerns about the use of objective indicators to judge the quality and performance of diverse academic programs.
"I have no doubt that by using indicators we can create profiles of individual graduate programs that those departments could use productively," said Ronald Sousa, head of the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.
However, Sousa objected to the conversion of those profiles into "hard data" that would be used to determine the comparative value of one program over another without regard for the unique characteristics of individual programs.
Emanuel Donchin, a professor of psychology, added that he strongly opposed the "checklist mentality" of the proposed evaluation system. In evaluation systems that rely on "mechanical criteria," there are invariably some low-quality programs that are able to perform well because they know how to "put the numbers in place," while some high-quality programs are too innovative to meet the evaluation criteria, he said.
Other faculty members expressed concern about the bureaucracy that would be created by such an evaluation process, noting that the extra work imposed on faculty could negatively affect teaching and research, which help build program quality.
Stephen Kaufman, a professor in the College of Medicine, questioned the need for outside evaluations of graduate programs.
"In the departments that I've been affiliated with, the motivation for a quality graduate program is resident within the program, and they are doing everything they can so I don't understand the higher view that something is broken."
Tucker said that while he didn't see anything as being broken, there are several reasons for concern. The UI is one of a handful of top-ranked universities whose average rating declined in a National Research Council study of doctoral programs. And a group of graduate students is currently trying to organize a union, which is an indicator that some graduate students feel they're not being dealt with well, he said.
Earlier in the meeting, the senate also approved a proposal for the establishment of a new Children and Family Research Center, a collaboration between the School of Social Work and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. According to the proposal, one of the center's primary goals is the creation of a research program that will help "advance public child welfare knowledge regarding child safety, permanency, and child and family well-being."