In national rankings, the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Information Science sits consistently at the top.
The school earned that reputation through innovation, from creating the oldest remaining doctoral program in the country (1948) to an award-winning online education program.
It's also a freestanding school within the university, a characteristic of all top 10 library programs across the country, said Dean John Unsworth.
That was a primary factor in his faculty's reluctance to merge with the UI College of Media, an idea explored last spring as part of the campus "Stewarding Excellence" budget review. Most library programs that have merged with other units in recent years have "plummeted" in the rankings, Unsworth said.
"The decision on our side was really about, 'How would a different structure likely affect our competitiveness?'" Unsworth said. "It wasn't a rejection of Media."
Unsworth said the uncertainty surrounding the future of his school has taken a toll. Rankings are based in part on reputation, and "people need to understand that this kind of internal process has a real impact on how you're perceived externally, even if nothing happens."
From the media side, interim Dean Jan Slater said not all units within her college meshed well with the School of Library Information Sciences, including advertising.
But she sees "great opportunities" for collaboration with the library school, noting that some faculty from the two units already work together. Professor Brant Houston, who teaches investigative reporting, works with library faculty on data mining. And Slater hopes to tap into the library school's expertise in online education and information technology.
She said faculty members saw possibilities in the idea of a merger, "but the perfect fit wasn't there. Faculty have to want this. It can't be imposed from the top down."
The library school and College of Media were among four small units studied in the review, along with the School of Social Work and the School of Labor and Employment Relations.
The review team concluded that a merger would produce no "significant savings" and could hurt the units unless it grew out of careful, bottom-up planning by the faculty.
Top campus administrators last week proposed no mergers for now, but urged the units to consider them as part of longer-term planning. And it directed them to try to share more support services to save money.
Meanwhile, the College of Media – the departments of journalism, advertising, and media and cinema studies, the Institute of Communications Research, and Division of Public Broadcasting – is engaged in its own internal review, at the request of campus administration.
The smallest college on campus, it's been through this exercise several times in the last decade. One 2003 report even recommended it shut down, Slater said.
That didn't happen, and the college instead decided to move from a two-year to a four-year program to boost enrollment and revenue. It also absorbed the former cinema studies department from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and took a new name – College of Media – to reflect changes in the profession and its curriculum.
But disgruntled advertising faculty have talked for some time about possibly joining the College of Business or the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, responding to what they saw as a disproportionate allocation of resources.
Advertising is the biggest department in the College of Media but "was getting the least amount of money," said Slater, former head of that department. It makes up about 50 percent of all majors but gets 18 percent of the budget, she said. And as enrollment has grown in recent years, student-faculty ratios have risen.
Slater thinks the department just got lost in the shuffle during all the changes over the last decade. When she joined the advertising department in 2007 after a national search, she was the 10th department head in seven years.
"It was just a really kind of uneasy time," Slater said. "The faculty just felt there was a need to have more of a solidified plan."
Advertising programs across the country differ widely in their organization, some partnering with speech communications, some housed within business colleges, Slater said. There's some crossover at the UI, where the advertising department teaches business students and speech communications students, and requires its own students to take marketing classes.
Slater said moving to the College of Business would be a "logical move," but advertising faculty value the department's accreditation within journalism and mass communications, which requires that students take 80 of their 124 hours in classes outside the college to ensure a background in the arts and sciences.
The College of Business requires more business courses, and the fear was that focus on arts and sciences might be lost, she said.
Last spring, advertising faculty asked the campus for permission to explore a move to LAS, where they share research interests and students with the communications department.
But those plans were put on hold pending the budget review.
Slater, who was appointed to a two-year post as interim dean in August, was asked by Richard Wheeler, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, to determine if the college's current arrangement is the most "academically sound and economically viable."
Besides discontent among advertising faculty, Wheeler said, the journalism department faces significant challenges in keeping up with rapid changes in the profession, the public broadcasting unit is not well-integrated into the college, and "there appears to be some confusion about the state of the college's finances."
One problem from the campus administration's point of view: "There's a lot of administrative costs for few students," Slater said. The college has 1,043 students, about the size of a large department but with "a lot more overhead."
Though it relies mostly on tuition income, rather than state funding, it has also run deficits for seven years, she said.
Slater is spending this semester investigating the college's finances and gathering other information, including:
– An information technology audit by a faculty member from the Graduate School of Library Information Sciences. The college has always gotten by with the "bare minimum" of IT support, she said, with one full-time staff member and two student workers, and has done little strategic planning.
"In a college where information technology is becoming more important every day in our own industries, it became very clear to us last spring that we weren't supporting it in the classroom," she said.
– A space study by Facilities and Services. The college shares Gregory Hall with the history and philosophy departments, and "every single time we hire somebody, we're thinking, where are we going to put them?"
– Graduate program review. Slater has requested an external review of the doctoral program in media and communications by alumni who now head top programs across the country, including Texas, Maryland, Georgia and UI Chicago.
– Curriculum review. Advertising has already completed a curriculum review, and other units have been asked to "look at what they do and how they do it, and how they can do it with less money," she said.