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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
19. University Educational Priorities
A wider University crisis in priorities occurred when the “Baby Boom” population produced after WWII was completing its college education and the market for undergraduate instruction began to fall. The colleges and universities of the state had responded to the augmented demand. By the 1980s, however, higher education was challenged in a different way when the demand sagged. Educational institutions found themselves overstaffed and with surplus space in classrooms and dormitories. The state colleges saw in this market crisis an opportunity. They suggested that the smaller classes and the smaller student/ faculty ratios in the colleges provided better educational experiences than those provided in comprehensive universities. A bill was introduced in the Illinois legislature to “relieve the University of the burden of undergraduate instruction”, so that it could concentrate on its primary interests in research and graduate training. A committee (on which I served) appointed by the University president took this proposal as a serious challenge, and attempted to assay realistically the cost of maintaining an undergraduate experience of high quality, and the potential effects of abandoning undergraduate instruction.
The advisory committee found that a significant erosion had occurred in the campus infrastructure supporting undergraduates; the dormitories, the classrooms, the intramural sports facilities had been neglected badly as resources were focussed primarily on new research facilities. The class sizes were indeed large and the foreign-born teaching assistants were sometimes inept as instructors. However, dropping undergraduate instruction was seen to be courting a disastrous blow to public support for the institution. Though the Chief did not appear in the committee’s report, the most compelling argument for keeping undergraduate teaching programs was probably the realization that graduate students do not play football or basketball, and that the Chief is a significant fund raiser for the University. Consequently, a significant shift in funding priorities had to be made. Teaching skills had to be rewarded; teaching facilities had to be improved; modern teaching equipment had to be provided. A threatened university had to play catch-up in undergraduate education. A massive investment in the infrastructure of undergraduate education was begun.