As Columbia College Chicago Looks Forward, Some Question If It’s Forgetting Its Past

Cranes help build the controversial $50 million student center at Columbia College at 8th Street and Wabash Avenue. School leaders say the building is a symbol of the future, but faculty and recent graduates say it represents a change in focus.
Cranes help build the controversial $50 million student center at Columbia College at 8th Street and Wabash Avenue. School leaders say the building is a symbol of the future, but faculty and recent graduates say it represents a change in focus. Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ
Cranes help build the controversial $50 million student center at Columbia College at 8th Street and Wabash Avenue. School leaders say the building is a symbol of the future, but faculty and recent graduates say it represents a change in focus.
Cranes help build the controversial $50 million student center at Columbia College at 8th Street and Wabash Avenue. School leaders say the building is a symbol of the future, but faculty and recent graduates say it represents a change in focus. Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ

As Columbia College Chicago Looks Forward, Some Question If It’s Forgetting Its Past

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Diana Vallera paused at 8th Street and Wabash Avenue in Chicago’s South Loop to stare at the construction cranes towering over what will be a new $50 million student center for Columbia College Chicago.

The private college has been a unique, arty presence in this part of the city for decades. It has long been known for its hands-on education, faculty of working professionals, and a come one, come all admission policy that attracted an eclectic mix of students.

But school leaders, grappling with declining enrollment, said they had to make major changes to bring the curriculum into the 21st century. Faculty and former students, however, said those changes have moved the college away from an immersive, skills-focused education and toward a more general education that threatens the school’s past and purpose.

“It’s really difficult for me to see this construction taking place,” said Vallera, the president of Columbia’s part-time faculty union for seven years. “[We’ve seen] programs be completely removed and faculty … fired, or no longer in use, because the programs don’t exist anymore.”

Dane Wheaton, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in game development, said he too saw “less and less” each year.

“And the stuff that is there, things like learning software, learning how to make things and do things, they’re getting replaced with things like business and management,” he said.

Leaders at Columbia aren’t the only ones with tough decisions to make. Enrollment has declined at many smaller liberal arts colleges across the country. As Columbia looks for ways to bring in new students, this fall the existing student body will be keeping an eye on the developments, including a labor disagreement between school leaders and part-time faculty that has already led to a walkout.

Columbia’s past and present

For decades, Columbia was seen as a place where students learned by doing. Longtime faculty said the school attracted nontraditional students, especially those who might not succeed at other colleges and universities because they were either not prepared or didn’t want the traditional college experience.

The school has produced many successful alumni, including Saturday Night Live cast member Aidy Bryant, The Chi creator Lena Waithe, and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak.

Because the classroom experience celebrated hands-on learning, the school sought out faculty who were working-professionals to bring real world experience.

All the students who applied were accepted. And the school’s open admissions policy meant it also attracted students who were interested in the arts, but hadn’t had an opportunity to build a portfolio, which is often required at more selective arts schools across the country, said Louis Silverstein, a retired Columbia professor who taught at the college for more than four decades.

Journalism professor Len Strazewski said he liked that Columbia attracted all types of students.

“You’d have a third of students who were as good as you get … a third of students would be average college students, and third would not be prepared,” he said. “That made it more difficult, but it also made it exciting when you saw a couple of those kids turn on and really start to develop.”

Five years ago, the school ended that open admissions policy. Mark Rosati, a college spokesman, said Columbia wanted to make sure incoming students were ready to do college-level work and graduated ready for modern jobs.

In addition to changes in the admission standards, there have been curricular changes.

Last year, the school merged the creative writing program into the English department. The year before, it merged the dance and theater departments. Curriculum was also rewritten in various departments, including fashion and design, which caused many courses to be condensed, changed, or eliminated.

The school has added new degrees, such as the comedy major, and is launching a civic media master’s program in January 2019.

‘We have to evolve and adapt’

In 2014, Columbia President Kwang-Wu Kim said producing expert makers and doers is not enough. He said students need to have critical thinking skills, and the ability to adapt and evolve in a rapidly changing world.

Columbia would not make Kim available for an interview, but Rosati said academic changes were necessary to modernize the school’s curriculum and streamline the path toward graduation.

“Columbia is almost 130 years old,” Rosati said. “Many of the oldest institutions in the world are colleges and universities — and that’s happened because of the value society’s placed on education. But the fact is that we can’t be ossified. We have to evolve and adapt.”

Part of the evolution is the $50 million student center under construction. Columbia has never had a central building like this, and in Kim’s 2014 speech, he said students need a central location where they can socialize and collaborate.    

All of these changes are why Colbey Reid moved from North Carolina last year to chair the college’s fashion department. She took over the department as the fashion curriculum was overhauled to include more business and entrepreneurial courses.

She believes students — especially those studying fashion — have to be able to straddle the design and business worlds to be competitive in the job market.

Dr. Colbey Reid, chair of the fashion department at Columbia College. (Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ)

“It doesn’t behoove our students to pay four-year private school education prices to learn how to sew when you can learn that much, much cheaper in many community venues,” Reid said from her office overlooking Lake Michigan. “And so, our idea is the classes that we’re offering as part of our core fashion experience need to be something that offers much more than just a technique.”

Some longtime faculty heartedly disagree. They worry the new curriculum removed too many classes that taught the technical skills of designing and making clothes.

“We used to have nine credits of pattern making and six credits of sewing,” said Elizabeth Williams, who teaches part-time in the fashion department and owns her own coat line. “We now have six credits combined of a class called pattern making and sewing. That’s what really saddens me, the hands on experience, the creative immersive process that’s being removed from our programs.”

Mannequins stand in wait for the fall semester at Columbia College. (Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ)

Losing students

Other changes at Columbia have less to do with curriculum and more to do with the student body. Nationally, there just are fewer 18- to 24-year-olds than in recent generations. Columbia, like many other smaller private liberal arts schools, has struggled to attract enough new students.

Michigan State University professor Roger Baldwin, who has studied the future of small liberal arts colleges, said students are much more interested in degrees that have a better track record of consistent employment right after graduation.

“If you Google anything about hot majors right now, they’re not English or philosophy or history,” Baldwin said. “It doesn’t discount the importance of those fields … [but] with the cost of college being so high now, they want to be able to see a clear path into a professional career.”

Enrollment at Columbia has dropped from 12,464 in 2008 to 7,312 in 2017, according to the college and the National Center for Education Statistics, although Rosati noted retention and graduation rates have increased in recent years. He said the school is doing more targeted recruitment and hiring a vice president of enrollment to address that loss.

At most smaller private schools, tuition revenue is needed to keep the doors open. In his 2014 speech, President Kim also said Columbia, which charges $26,090 in tuition for the upcoming school year, is putting a renewed focus on increasing alumni donations — an area they hadn’t tapped as intentionally in the past.

While a 2018 Standard & Poor’s credit report rates Columbia as financially stable, it also notes that declining enrollment could become a ratings issue if not reversed. They expect the school to stabilize the enrollment decline in the next two years, but warned the school can’t rely on tapping into its endowment to combat declining tuition revenue, something it has done twice in recent years.

“It just feels like a vicious cycle of not enough students are coming,” said Zoë Haworth, who recently graduated Columbia with a bachelor’s in design. “So, like, OK, we have to cut down on this and more students aren’t coming because you’re cutting down on things they want, and it is driving people away.”

Zoë Haworth, recent graduate at Columbia College, poses for a portrait outside the school. (Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ)

Part-time faculty unhappy

All these changes have affected the number of courses taught each semester by part-time faculty, a group the school has relied on to offer real-world lessons and connect students with the job market.

“If you look at our history, Columbia’s founded on part-time faculty and working professionals,” said Vallera, the president of the union that represents part-time faculty.

The part-time faculty currently make $3,869 to $4,913 per course, according to the most recent collective bargaining agreement. Last year, nearly two-thirds of classes at Columbia College were taught by part-time faculty, many who said they used to teach three to four courses per semester, but are now teaching one or two.

Prexy Nesbitt, a local activist and part-time Columbia professor, said it’s harder for faculty to launch the kind of interesting courses that made the college unique.

“I used to teach two courses about Nelson Mandela. It was condensed to one,” Nesbitt said. “I tried to introduce a course on film in Africa. All of these were rebuffed or they’ve have been cut back.”

Prexy Nesbitt, a part-time teacher at Columbia College, outside his Oak Park home after returning from a trip to South Africa with his students (Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ)

The changes have caused tension between Columbia leadership and the school’s part-time teachers. The union contract for the part-time faculty expired last August, leading to a two-day walkout last November.

Union leaders said the college is trying to replace part-time employees in the union with nonunionized employees. Under the previous contract, classes were assigned based on seniority. Rosati said the college wants more flexibility to bring in professors that can teach new, relevant skills, but the union sees this as a way to get rid of longtime faculty who get paid more and replace them with faculty who don’t have union protection.

Vallera said more than 30 union stewards recently voted unanimously to strike in the fall if the college doesn’t meet their demands in negotiations. They’re planning to alert parents and alumni of their plans via email and during move-in weekend, asking them to write letters to the administration in support of part-time faculty.

Recent graduate Zoe Eitel, who covered the enrollment decline for the school newspaper, said the union could be more open to newer faculty.

“There are a lot of adjuncts who I love and are dear to my heart and have taught me a lot,” Eitel said. “But there’s merit in bringing in new people and that’s one of those things [the union] isn’t being realistic about. Just because they’re new doesn’t mean they’re bad.”

‘Is there a new Columbia?’

Cranes help build the controversial $50 million student center at Columbia College at 8th Street and Wabash Avenue. (Sebastian Hidalgo/WBEZ)

As Vallera stood outside the construction site, part-time theater professor Andrea Dymond pulled up on her motorcycle.

Dymond said it’s difficult to see the school become such a different place to teach than when she started more than a decade ago.

“There is an old Columbia that is being strangled, I think,” Dymond said. “Is there a new Columbia? Not yet, but there is something happening to the old Columbia [that] I don’t think is particularly positive for the students or for this institution’s place in both the cultural life and educational life of Chicago.”

Reid, the fashion chair, said she understands that change is hard, but believes it’s necessary.

“We can pine for the past, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s moving quickly,” Reid said. “And I feel very urgent about it because I care about the students I graduate from this program and I want them to be ready for their world. Not my world that I crave or miss or wish I didn’t have to adapt to.”

For many part-time faculty, Columbia’s new directions in admission, curriculum, and faculty feel like  an erasure of the school’s unique, decades-old identity.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.