In the summer of 2019, Sarah Richardson was excited to start a new chapter in her life. The Arkansas native had jumped at the chance to move to Illinois when Concordia University Chicago accepted her into its theater program along with a scholarship offer. Filled with hope, the then 18-year-old packed her bags, bid her family farewell and set off on an adventure.
But that adventure came to a screeching halt halfway through Richardson’s sophomore year, leaving her feeling lost, alone and abandoned. After only a year and a half at Concordia, Richardson was one of several students devastated by the university’s program cuts and mass faculty layoff. With the theater program reduced to minor courses and an extracurricular, Richardson’s future, like many others, hung in the balance.
“I legitimately felt like I was being robbed of this knowledge and of experience. It made me really mad,” said Richardson over Zoom, now 21 and a junior at Flagler College in Florida.
In December 2020, just two weeks before the holiday break, university officials notified students via email of their plans to eliminate at least 15 programs from the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Graduate Studies and College of Business. The associate business degree and Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs, theater, graphic arts, women’s and gender studies and emergency medical services (EMS) were among the courses nixed. The university also let go of 51 faculty and staff members. The move was aimed to alleviate a projected financial crisis and save the university at least $5 million, officials said.
“Thankfully, the university is not facing a financial crisis,” the email from 2020 read and clarified. “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 changes with less certain outcomes. Prioritization will help us avert such a situation.”
What’s more is that the university sought to reallocate the money saved and fund other under-resourced programs and invest in new ones. Since the prioritization process began, Concordia formed two new colleges, the College of Health, Science and Technology and College of Theology, Arts and Humanities.
But students like Richardson were shocked and blindsided by the initial news.
“That was the most disheartening part for me because I care about my theater professors a lot and hearing that they were suddenly getting dropped from their job right before a holiday – that sucks to hear,” she recalled. “That, I think, made me the angriest.”
Soon after the announcement, Richardson said she received emails from her professors, who were struggling to wrap their heads around the situation while trying to answer questions from students and offer some advice. The university assured students like Richardson that they would be able to complete their degrees even with their bachelor’s programs ending, and their courses would be taught by existing full-time and adjunct faculty.
As the news loomed over the holidays, Richardson and her peers were forced to bring in the new year with one question: Do I stay or leave?
That question became top of mind for Brittany*. Brittany, who requested her name be withheld for fear of reprisals, said she was paralyzed.
For Brittany, freshman year was a struggle. She was homesick for the first month of that year, adjusting to campus life and being on her own for the first time. By sophomore year, she found her groove, only to be derailed by the university’s news.
“I was terrified. I was really scared,” said Brittany, who still attends Concordia.
At that time, Brittany said talked to her academic advisor to see what her options were if she stayed in her major but realized she didn’t have much of a choice, especially since most of her core professors were leaving. On top of that, Brittany said she had different advisors, which added more anxiety to the mix.
“I was going to be essentially teaching myself all of my major. I just didn’t feel like I could do that,” Brittany said, recalling the plan one of her advisors drew up.
“When you feel like no one knows what they’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing,” she added. “I didn’t know how I was going to graduate on time – if I was going to graduate on time, and I can’t really afford to not. It was really scary. I cried a lot.”
Brittany went on to say she thought about something her father told her right before she decided what college to attend. She said her father asked her to think long and hard about which college to pick because the wrong one could lead to an “expensive mistake.”
“That has been echoing in my head over the past couple of years because we’re paying so much money, and I feel like I made a mistake choosing this school, but I didn’t know what they were going to do when I chose it.”
Richardson had a similar experience. She told Wednesday Journal that the university was “vague” in its responses about what students affected by program cuts should do next. Like Brittany, Richardson also bounced around from one academic advisor to another.
“They gave very general statements and were just like, ‘It’s OK. We’ll figure it out’ – like that sort of thing,” she said. “It was a lot of emphasis on just general navigation, and they didn’t offer any help to their students.”
Richardson told the Journal that the decision to leave Concordia was easy, but the process was tough. She said she was guarded when looking at other universities and did more research to understand the programs, campus culture and more. Richardson admitted she did not know much about Concordia; she remembered getting a letter in the mail like most high schoolers do and just applied. In return, she received what was advertised in the original flyer – a scholarship. She also liked the university’s proximity to Chicago, a major plus for a theater major.
“I feel like the thing that happened with Concordia … that’s something you hear about in high school like, ‘Oh, the arts programs got cut.’ I didn’t think that could happen to colleges. I don’t know why those two things are very separate in my mind,” Richardson said. “So, when it did happen, it was really surprising, really shocking.”
Richardson explained she could not justify staying at Concordia any longer. She called the university’s behavior during the mass layoff “gross.”
“What’s the point?” she asked.
“I felt like after that display from Concordia, I could not give them more money. I could not stay there because it just made me feel angry being there,” Richardson continued.
In an email, university spokesperson Eric Matanyi said the university does not have data on how many students transferred after dissolving the 15 academic programs.
“Students who leave CUC prior to completion of a degree are not obligated to share with the university what their future plans are,” Matanyi wrote, noting that pandemic-related issues may have also impacted “enrollment decisions” since the prioritization.
Other students found themselves in the same boat as Brittany, hanging on and making do. They found it too expensive to go elsewhere or were too close to graduating. Madison Albury, a recent graduate of Concordia, was skeptical about the university’s prioritization.
“It boils down to a lack of transparency about what they’re saying,” said Albury, 22. “The university is hemorrhaging money, and the only way to save it is by cutting these specific programs.”
Albury said she’s still confused by what happened to the university’s journalism program. She said she dropped her journalism major and focused on her other major – English – after she was told by a professor that the journalism program was to be cut and he was being laid off.
“We were told that some of our classes would be taught by an adjunct professor, but the vast majority of our classes, especially those really major-specific classes, would potentially have to be taken elsewhere. So, either Dominican [University] or DePaul [University] or potentially another university,” she said.
That posed a problem for Albury, who said if she continued majoring in journalism, she would need to add another year in school, delaying graduation. Matanyi denied that the journalism program was on the list of discontinued courses.
“The journalism program remains an available bachelor’s program at CUC,” Matanyi said. “At no time was it ever formally indicated as a discontinued program in any communication to faculty, staff or students.”
Kyle*, who requested anonymity, said he was sad to see the theater program dissolve after the announcement but still chose to stay at the university. For Kyle, theater is about finding and building a community with creatives. Surrounded by budding young artists, he looked forward to class and the energy, camaraderie and spirit that transpired. All of that was lost once the core program was dismantled and the people who made up his community – his family – moved on.
“I keep saying community. Community. But that’s what college is, right?” he said.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to expect, but I just can’t help but get the feeling that whatever I’m getting isn’t what was promised to me,” Kyle continued. “[It] isn’t what I necessarily paid for or what I even hoped for.”
Matanyi told the Journal university officials recognized the hardships faculty, staff and students endured because of the prioritization process but is “proud to report that the university has moved forward in a positive direction.”
“Despite the significant enrollment and financial challenges that so many colleges and universities in our state, region and nation are facing, Concordia-Chicago has made every effort to retain a position of strength and to carry out its most meaningful work – serving its students,” he wrote in the email. “Prioritization freed up financial resources that are currently being reinvested in our students, our employees, our programs and our mission, as we move confidently toward a thriving future.”
But Richardson, Brittany and other Concordia students believed that their future was at stake – and in some ways, altered – because of the program cuts. Looking at the glass half full, Brittany told the Journal she learned to advocate for herself, as she navigated changing majors and the uncertainties that came with it.
“I’ve learned that I can work with the cards I have been dealt,” she said. “I can’t just give up whenever something gets hard and give them up immediately.”
Richardson echoed Brittany.
Last August, Richardson posted a series of pictures on Instagram, paying tribute to the good times she had at Concordia. In the photos, she’s dressed in a costume, posing next to friends, classmates and professors – a life that seemed so different now. These days, Richardson dreams of being in Atlanta, another bustling hub for entertainment.
“It feels like it’s falling into place,” Richardson said. “I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I didn’t have the same sense of security when I was at Concordia. At Concordia, I was just like I really hope I figured it out by the time I graduated. I didn’t really know.
“But I feel like being here in this location, and the school, and the friends that I have here, I think I feel really set up for my future.”
*Editor’s Note: Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of sources.
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