Cutting class

Sep 5, 2007 at 12:00 am

You might say it was a matter of the fiscal vs. the philosophical — with more than a little emotional thrown into the mix — when a Wayne State Board of Governors committee last week considered axing the school's Department of Interdisciplinary Studies (DIS).

One thing about which there is no debate: WSU is facing a severe financial crunch. In that regard it's in the same leaky boat as the rest of the state's public colleges and universities. Michigan itself, as we all know, is in dire financial straits, and that sort of fiscal pain, like fecal matter, tends to roll downhill.

In the case of Wayne State, cuts are being made across the board, but the de-funding shit really hit the fan when the school's administration included elimination of the DIS in its proposed budget.

In all, there are about 700 students enrolled in the DIS's undergraduate program, with some 400 taking classes in any one semester. That compares to about 18,000 undergrads at the university overall.

Shutting the department, says the administration, would save the university about $220,000 a year in administrative costs. Faculty would be absorbed into other departments.

What makes the whole debate particularly compelling is the claim by DIS supporters that this cut is about more than saving dollars. Ron Aronson, a longtime member of the department and one of this area's leading progressive voices, wrote in a recent piece that blaming the elimination of DIS on the budget crisis is actually just a "smokescreen."

"A small group of self-styled 'elite' faculty are pushing for a makeover of the university. They have long been enemies of IS, and they don't hide their reasons: Our students are older, 'only' attend classes parttime, and are admitted through our unique open enrollment policy. ... We will take in any adult high-school graduate who applies and then let them prove themselves in our solid courses, which are capped by a significant senior research project.

"In the nervous, budget-cutting environment of Michigan, and, yes, in downtown Detroit's state university, 'different' is immediately read as 'inferior.' Those who envision a more selective Wayne State University demand the elimination of IS."

At last week's meeting, board members such as Richard Bernstein disagreed, saying this is all about the bottom line — that line being keeping the cost of attending Wayne Sate as affordable as possible.

"Everyone recognizes this program does great work," said Bernstein. "But we have to keep tuition costs in line."

It's a sacrifice, to be sure," he said. "But we have to be willing to make the cuts and sacrifices necessary." Board member Eugene Driker, participating by phone while vacationing in upstate New York, echoed those sentiments.

But supporters of the program countered that if it's really about money, eliminating the department is bad fiscal policy. The contention is that hundreds of students will end up going elsewhere, and the lost tuition will far exceed the money saved.

The fiscal argument for saving DIS was bolstered at last week's meeting by presentations from one current and one former student. Karen Crorey, a single, working mother who obtained a bachelor's degree and is working on a master's with the intent of eventually getting a Ph.D., had some in the audience misty-eyed as she described how the unique nature of the DIS program nurtured her academic career. "Don't shut us out," she pleaded. "This is big."

If it is eliminated, Crorey warned, she'd seek her doctorate elsewhere. If Wayne Sate decided to abandon its commitment to students like her, she explained, then it would lose her loyalty in return.

She was followed by Michael Russell, who gave a tear-inducing speech as well, saying how the program — with its emphasis on counseling and tutelage — enabled him, a student from Mumford High with a 1.6 grade point average, to go on to become an accomplished attorney.

Nonetheless, the budget committee voted 5-2 to approve the proposed budget, including the elimination of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. The proposal now goes to the full board, which is scheduled to decide the department's fate at a meeting on Thursdayday, Sept. 6, the day this paper comes out.

Despite the budget crisis, it's hard not to see the issue as also being part of a larger philosophic debate about WSU's commitment to its stated mission, part of which explicitly says that it is here "to implement its curricula in ways that served the needs of a nontraditional student population that is racially and ethnically diverse, commuting, working, and raising families."

But recent actions have called that commitment into doubt. As Stuart Henry, formerly chair of the DIS at Wayne Sate and currently the director of the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, points out in a piece he wrote, WSU closed its "adult-oriented" College of Lifelong Learning in 2002, and then closed its "only other college explicitly serving adult urban students, the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs in 2005." To eliminate DIS, he contends, "is one more nail in the coffin of the lower income, adult, minority student at WSU."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact News Hits at [email protected]