Last week, Concordia University Chicago in River Forest announced it is significantly reducing its faculty and staff — including a well-known employee who heads up the gerontology program — and eliminating about 15 other programs, as part of what administrators are calling a prioritization process. 

Prioritization, administrators have said, is an attempt to bring the university more in line with the religious values of the evangelical denomination that governs it and to realize $5 million in cost savings that will then be reallocated for other purposes. 

According to a statement emailed to undergraduates, which Wednesday Journal obtained last week, the programs slated to be cut include six bachelor’s degree programs in the College of Arts and Sciences: Game Art, Graphic Arts, Theater (which will remain as a minor and extra-curricular activity), Women’s and Gender Studies, and Emergency Medical Services. 

Two programs in the College of Graduate Studies: English as a Second Language (ESL) and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) are slated to be cut. 

In the College of Business, seven programs will be eliminated: the Associate of Arts Degree; Public Safety; Management Information Systems; Human Resources Certificate; specializations in Not-for-Profit, Entrepreneurship and School Business Management; Church, Not-for-Profit Management; and Business Communication. 

In the statement emailed to undergraduates, administrators said “the most substantial change involves moving forward with a significant reduction in our faculty and staff through voluntary or involuntary separations and voluntary early retirements. It is important for you to know that each member of our community who is departing, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, has been offered a retirement or severance package.” 

Administrators also said that “our top priority during this transition is supporting you, our students, by minimizing any disruptions you may experience,” and vowed that “every student currently enrolled in an affected program will have the opportunity to earn their degree here at Concordia-Chicago.” 

Concordia’s Board of Regents “reviewed, approved, and adopted the final recommendations” for program cuts at a private meeting on Dec. 11, administrators explained in a separate statement, which they emailed to alumni on Dec. 18. 

“Thankfully, the university is not facing a financial crisis,” the statement reads. “However, based on a recent analysis, we would have faced one within the next two years. Such a crisis would have led to more drastic actions with less certain outcomes. Prioritization will help us avert such a situation.” 

Administrators did not give an exact number of employees who are scheduled to be let go. When contacted on Dec. 21, Eric Matanyi, associate vice president for Communications & Marketing, said the statement sent to alumni “stands as our official public statement regarding our Prioritization process.”

The programs identified for elimination represent less than 10 percent of Concordia’s more than 200 programs, but they have raised suspicions among some students and faculty who are concerned about how the university is making the cuts, specifically the role the institution’s religious mission plays in determining the programs and employees that are eliminated. 

The announcement comes roughly two weeks after the Concordia Faculty Senate, a group of faculty members that provides advice and consultation on a range of matters within the university, complained that faculty, even tenured employees, were being stripped of protections, such as having a say in the program- and job-cutting process and being given at least three to six months’ worth of severance.  

In an email statement released earlier this month, Matanyi said the $5 million in cost savings will “be reallocated to support existing under-resourced programs/operational areas, as well as new initiatives.” 

He added that the university “is emphasizing its ongoing commitment to its mission and vision,” part of which 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 national Concordia University System of seven colleges and universities and a satellite campus.

In an email sent anonymously, one Concordia faculty member, who feared retaliation, claimed that the university is “hiding its newly announced ‘anti-secularist’ prioritization agenda from the over 95% of the student body who does not practice the Lutheran-Missouri Synod religion.” 

Another faculty member, who also requested anonymity, complained about the 2019 job posting that Concordia published while searching for a new president. The posting requires that all nominees “be a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation and male, faithful to the Scriptures as the Word of God and to the theological positions of the LCMS.” 

In about a half-dozen other emails, students and faculty, most requesting anonymity, also pointed to a YouTube video published in October by Concordia President Russell P. Dawn, in which Dawn explains that when Concordia “fell into serious financial difficulties back in 2003, its route to recovery was driven mainly by increasing revenues without much thought about identity. New programs were added rapidly, often without considering the fit of such programs with Concordia’s identity. 

“A number of those programs ended up fitting quite well, but some others didn’t,” he said. “Eventually, it got to where there was no strong, clear, unifying identity to draw it all together and make sense of it. If Concordia is going to thrive, truly thrive, it will only do so if it develops a clear, strong, unifying identity.” 

In the Dec. 18 statement, administrators did not provide an explicit list of criteria that governed the program and job cuts, but they did mention that “reinvestment will have a positive impact on our future and includes items such as creation of new academic programs, infrastructure improvements, and salary restructuring.” 

One cut that stings

Earlier this month, before the Board of Regents met and as the Faculty Senate expressed their concerns, Lydia K. Manning, a professor of gerontology at Concordia who also heads up the university’s gerontology department and its Center for Gerontology, told Wednesday Journal that she worried about the continued existence of her program. 

Manning said the program may be comparatively small, enrolling fewer than 100 students, but it punches above its weight in terms of the amount of outside funding it brings in and the impact it has on the surrounding community. 

Manning’s concerns prompted community leaders in Oak Park and River Forest to submit a letter of support for the gerontology program. 

This week, a student in the department, who worked closely with Manning, said while the program doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Manning was among faculty members who were “let go.” Manning could not be reached for comment on Monday and by Tuesday afternoon, university officials had not confirmed whether or not Manning was among the faculty members who were terminated. 

Lauren M. Bouchard, a doctoral student in gerontology and Manning’s graduate assistant at the center, sent a letter to President Dawn addressing her concerns with “a deeply disturbing shift in the university primarily as a staff member.

“There has been virtually no communication with graduate students, and there is also a pervasive use of vague and unhelpful information in official messages,” Bouchard wrote. “To my knowledge, your administration has not attempted to elicit graduate student feedback regarding any university modifications, a dangerous precedent to your most vital stakeholders.” 

Bouchard declined to comment when reached earlier this week, but agreed to share her letter to the president. 

Marcus Wolfe, who said he was Manning’s first doctorate graduate associate in gerontology and could be the nation’s first African American male with a gerontology doctorate once he obtains his degree, said he has a different viewpoint about the administration. Wolfe confirmed that Manning was among faculty who were leaving. 

“I’ve known Lydia longer than anybody else there and worked with her longer than anybody else, but I chose Concordia, because of Concordia,” Wolfe said, adding that his main priority has been ensuring that he finishes his degree. 

“I’m more concerned about the gerontology program and from what I understand, the administration is going to make sure we finish,” Wolfe said. “I need to become a doctor in gerontology. That’s what I’m concerned with.” 

Wolfe, who said he’s been at Concordia for four years and grew up in the Lutheran faith, said he hasn’t seen signs of rampant anti-secularism or discrimination at Concordia and lauded the administration’s responsiveness to his concerns, saying whenever he’s had a question about something, they’ve answered it within a few days. 

“I don’t understand what the problem is,” he said, while referencing the concerns about Concordia’s religious mission made by other students and faculty members. “I don’t know where that’s coming from. It’s a Lutheran institution, so why wouldn’t it try to hold up Lutheran values? I chose a Lutheran institution because that’s my belief system.” 

This is a developing story.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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