As I’m sure many of you are aware, this morning the Western Illinois University Board of Trustees unanimously voted to eliminate the philosophy, African American studies, religious studies, and women’s studies majors.
Many people are outraged, and many more are disappointed. There was some hope that these programs would survive wholly intact, and while they will still exist as minors and as general education courses, the programs will no longer exist in the same capacity they used to.
There are many arguments against cutting these four programs, all of which are hard to argue with. Perhaps the strongest argument is that the very first universities existed almost entirely because of philosophy—in the beginning, these institutions existed as lone sources of knowledge and critical thinking. Dissenters argue that a university without a philosophy program isn’t a university at all.
Very well, then. I agree. A university without a philosophy program isn’t a university at all.
It is essential we do not forget the context of Western. This area of Illinois has long been the pinnacle of rural poverty. Money so seldom finds its way here that we have even come to refer to this region as “Forgottonia.”* We are politically insignificant. Our state budget is in a political lock-down, our poverty rates are higher than most of the rest of the nation, and our public schools are underfunded.
And I agree with you dissenters, eliminating these programs will make this situation even worse. We will lose educators, and as a result, even more money will leave the state. But it is important to remember the function of Western. The top five undergraduate majors at WIU are law enforcement, biology, agriculture, psychology, and accounting. These are all programs which give the student a high probability of graduating and finding a career within their field. These are programs which are either regionally demanded (agriculture, biology) or offer a linear path toward employment (education, law enforcement).
There is no shame in being a technical college, as some dissenters would suggest. There is no shame in offering the population of a poor, rural community a ticket to a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. There is no shame in going to college with the goal of graduating in four years for the express purpose of finding a job and a career.
And, as an English graduate student, I can attest that there is no shame in going to college to better yourself, to hone your critical thinking skills, to give yourself a more comprehensive understanding of the world to better understand why our society is structured the way it is.
With these skills that our university offers, there should be no misunderstanding the present situation: there is no money. While some emergency funds were distributed, the situation appears no closer to ending. Western cannot serve its community if it closes, and it has used its cash reserve to honor students’ MAP grants and to remain open to the public for as long as possible.
But at some point, it is time to recognize that there is no end in sight. Whatever is happening in Springfield, it is clear that no solution is coming. Next month marks the turn of a new fiscal year as well as the year-anniversary of having no state budget. Western, rather quickly, has to figure out how it can remain open. I agree that there should be no money in education, but the reality of the situation is that there is. Western will be forced to close its doors if it cannot figure out how to be financially independent without funding from the state. Make no mistake: there will be more programs cut and more faculty laid off as Western struggles to remain open. My heart goes out to all whom are affected.
* For information on just how poor this region of Illinois is, check out my friend John Johnson’s blog, who has his Master’s of Political Science from the University of Illinois – Chicago.