UI says it won't weaken labor education program
CHICAGO — The University of Illinois has no intention of diluting its labor education program, and any structural changes to the School of Labor and Employment Relations will be a shared decision with faculty, the campus provost promised legislators and union leaders this week.
In testimony prepared for a legislative hearing in Chicago, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida also said merging the school with a larger college offers opportunities to expand enrollment and improve research collaborations and job opportunities for students.
"The Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been providing educational services and outreach to Illinois union members and building the body of scholarship around related issues since 1947. That is a track record we have no intention of disrupting," Adesida said.
Committee Chairman Keith Farnham, D-Elgin, however, asked the campus to hold off on any major moves until legislators have a chance to weigh in, according to one union leader in attendance.
"We simply feel that since the school was set up by the General Assembly back in 1945" as an independent entity, that should be honored, said Jason Keller, legislative director of the Illinois AFL-CIO.
Thursday's hearing was called by the state House Economic Development Committee to address labor concerns about the school's future as an independent unit. A second hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Springfield.
One of the smallest academic units on campus, the school has been targeted several times for possible consolidation, most recently with the College of Business or the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Many faculty in the school argue that it should remain independent and fear that a merger could diminish the labor education component of its mission. A campus review team concluded in 2010 that a merger would offer no significant savings and could harm quality.
Seven representatives from a broad sector of labor groups testified this week, some of them graduates of the school, Keller said.
"It's something that the labor movement built back in 1945," Keller said. "It is, I guess, an issue of pride.
"The one common question was, Why is this needed?" he said.
Adesida said all schools and colleges at the UI's Urbana campus — not just the School of Labor and Employment Relations — are examining their organizational structures and ability to support students and faculty. Several are considering relocating or merging with other colleges, including the labor school but also units in the College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the College of Media, he said.
"In short, we have challenged every department and every college to look at what they do now and what they will need to do to meet the educational needs of our state in the next 20 to 50 years," he said. "And we have asked the faculty to debate, discuss and finally to tell us what steps they can take and what resources they will need to go from being a good program to being the best program in the world."
In all cases, the discussion is being led by faculty in those units, and recommendations will come from them, he said.
"Ultimately these are not solely administrative decisions. These are matters of critical academic policy that are core to our university mission and they must be made through our system of shared, faculty governance," he said.
Adesida said being part of a larger unit could have "immediate benefits" for faculty and students at the School of Labor and Employment Relations, including:
— More interdisciplinary research collaboration opportunities.
— Greater flexibility in educational curricula.
— Increased possibilities for faculty hiring and joint appointments.
— Improved competitiveness for graduates in the job market.
Faculty believe there's enough student demand to double enrollment, but the current facility and administrative structure can't support that expansion, Adesida said. Students have also said that they would benefit from easy access to accounting, finance and management courses in the College of Business, he said.
"These are infrastructure issues that might be alleviated in a larger unit such as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences or the College of Business," he said.
Adesida said the campus has no intention of eliminating either of the school's two main components: graduate degree-granting programs in human resources and labor and employment relations; and the Labor Education Program, which provides training and educational opportunities to union members around the state. The two programs are "strongly linked," he said.
About 195 students are currently pursuing master's and doctorate degrees at the school, and 14 undergraduates have signed up for a minor in Global Labor Studies through the Labor Education Program, according to the provost.
Any change would require a hearing before a committee of the academic senate, a public vote by the full senate, approval by the provost and president and a vote by the UI Board of Trustees, he noted.