Editor’s note: the initial picture we posted along with this story was not Concordia University. 

Faculty at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest are bracing for what could be a round of painful terminations and cuts to various departments as the institution implements what it is calling a “prioritization” process. 

In an email statement, Eric Matanyi, the university’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, said prioritization “will allow the university to realize $5 million in funds that will be reallocated to support existing under-resourced programs/operational areas, as well as new initiatives.” 

Matanyi said, in addition, that the university “is emphasizing its ongoing commitment to its mission and vision.” Part of that mission is to be “steadfast in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures” and to faithfully practice the “confessional teachings of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” the Lutheran denomination that operates the Concordia University System. The system comprises seven colleges and universities across the country, including the one in River Forest, and one satellite campus. 

 Concordia University Chicago’s vision is to be a “Christ-centered university where truth, freedom, and vocation form students for lives of influence and service for the common good.” 

But the members of the Concordia Faculty Senate said they’re worried about how the university is implementing its prioritization process. 

According to a statement sent to media outlets on Dec. 2 by an employee requesting anonymity for fear of retribution, the university’s Board of Regents will meet on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 “to terminate the employment of 20-40% of full, senior, tenured faculty and staff, without cause. 

“One week before Christmas and three months after stripping the faculty of their rights without their knowledge or consent, Concordia University Chicago, is engaging in secretive business practices and withholding information from enrolled and prospective students,” according to the statement. 

In response to the statement, Matanyi said “faculty and staff from across the organization have been active participants” during the prioritization process, which he explained involves “a comprehensive assessment of all academic programs and operational areas.” 

Matanyi did not detail the extent of the cuts or identify areas of possible cuts, explaining that “no final decisions have been made at this time.” He said the Board of Regents “will review the proposals resulting from the process” soon.

According to the minutes of a Faculty Senate meeting last month, Concordia Provost Erik Ankerberg told employees that the university will notify them of the changes on Dec. 16 — several days after the Board of Regents meetings take place. The meetings are closed to the public. 

Faculty Senate members have worried about the university’s prioritization process for several weeks. 

In an email the Senate sent to Concordia President Russell Dawn and Provost Ankerberg on Nov. 12, which Wednesday Journal obtained last week, the Faculty Senate “expressed serious reservations” about three “key process-related components and one results-based issue” related to the prioritization process. 

“Namely, we are concerned about the suspension of the institution’s responsibility to uphold tenure, the termination of faculty during the height of the global pandemic, and the intermixing of finances with religious-based decisions of who to let go,” the email reads. 

The Senate, which consults with the university on matters involving curriculum and policy, isn’t technically unionized. In its statement, the Senate said that the university’s Employee Handbook outlines a series of protections for tenured faculty, if the university has to make cuts. 

Those protections include having faculty “serve on committees that determine who and what is to be cut and a provision that requires the university to rehire an eliminated faculty member if rehiring occurs within two years,” according to the Senate’s email. 

The university’s policy states that if the Board of Regents terminates a faculty position, they have to give at least six months’ advance notice. In addition, faculty members said they “advocate for full salary and benefits for three months as severance for non-tenured faculty and six months for tenured faculty,” as the Employee Handbook outlines. 

“We believe a more considerate and less disruptive timeline for reductions in force to happen would be at the end of the spring semester in May 2021,” the email reads. “We are experiencing a pandemic and the uncertainty of people losing their health care benefits creates unintended consequences connected to the realities of COVID-19.” 

Sandra Doering, a professor of teacher education and chair of the Faculty Senate, declined to comment. She said the Senate has been told to refer all inquiries to the college’s communications department.

It’s not entirely clear how much the COVID-19 pandemic factored into the university’s prioritization process, but Matanyi said projected enrollment decreases have played a part in the process. 

“Today’s educational landscape continues to evolve rapidly, and the number of traditional undergraduate students expected to enroll in college will continue to decline over the next decade,” he said. “Given the exceptional enrollment and financial challenges all colleges and universities in our state and region are facing, Concordia-Chicago is making every effort to retain a position of strength and carry out its most meaningful work — serving its students.”

Meanwhile, some university employees and community members are worried about what the university’s prioritization plan means for some beloved programs and initiatives. 

Lydia K. Manning, a professor of gerontology at Concordia, who heads up the university’s gerontology department and its Center for Gerontology, said she worries about the continued existence of her program, which is relatively small in the number of students it enrolls but nonetheless punches above its weight in the amount of outside revenue it attracts. 

“It is my understanding that similar to all other programs at Concordia-Chicago, my gerontology program and the Center for Gerontology are being evaluated to determine whether or not they are viable to the university and align with the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) and the mission of the university,” Manning said.

“I believe the surrounding communities of Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park would feel a loss. The gerontology program and the Center for Gerontology have been instrumental in helping to build age-friendly efforts in our communities,” she said.

“We’re a thriving entity that does our best to disseminate information and knowledge with regard to training future gerontologists,” Manning added. “Additionally, we’re at the table doing considerable community work while building an awareness of, and appreciation for, aging. While that might not be reflected in terms of the bottom line, it’s valuable in terms of bolstering the university’s efforts, as an Age-Friendly University, to make a difference in the lives of people as they age.” 

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