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A call for course correction

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Is there a more spectacularly successful organization in Idaho than the College of Western Idaho? From its founding barely a decade ago, it now serves more than 31,000 students in southwest Idaho, its astounding growth a demonstration of the overwhelming need for its services and at least in part the institution’s ability to scale up.

But there are red flags, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Boom periods, when they occur, often are critical transition points whether for a business, or state, or nation – or college.

The College of Western Idaho seems to be coming up on a fork in the road, and its trustees have a responsibility for thinking hard and thoroughly about what they do next. Their decisions in the next two or three years could affect this college, and a large chunk of Idaho, for a long time to come.

The latest and largest red flag came in the form of an April 16 letter from the faculty senate of CWI to the board of trustees. This kind of letter is not unheard of in higher education, but it usually comes when the institution is undergoing critical, and often negative, shifts and adjustments.

Like some other letters of its kind, there’s a concern about administrative blowback: “There is a culture of fear that there will be retaliation for speaking out against administration.” The letter noted that a poll of faculty resulted in a lack of confidence in the college president and interim provost. And not just the administrators: “Faculty came into the 2018-2019 academic year feeling unheard by the trustees … Now more than ever it was obvious that faculty’s voice was being ignored, filtered and discouraged.”

Manifestations were cited. “We want to be involved in conversations and to be able to ask questions. However, on multiple occasions when we have questioned decisions, our Interim Provost has told us if we don’t like to it to find a new job. For the record, we don’t want to find a new job. We love working at CWI. … Many faculty chose to come to CWI over a university because teaching and students are their priority. And in the past, it has felt like students were the priority.”

It goes on: “It does not feel like that anymore. More and more our college feels like it is moving toward a public ‘for-profit’ institution. In fact, our new Provost comes to us with a for-profit institution background.”

The letter does get into more specific concerns as well. Some of them are inadequate professional status (“quotas on rank for faculty”), and many members of the faculty have come to believe they will be seeing pay cuts next year. The reasons for thinking so weren’t specified, but the allegation was made clearly and seemingly without need for further support.

But some concerns are broader, such as a proposal to crunch semesters into eight-week terms. That “decision was made without asking our students or our community if this is a change they want. We worry that we may be risking success at the ends of innovation.”

And the letter makes a bigger-picture point as well: “Students and faculty are the best ambassadors for CWI to the community. If administration does not realize this, no amount of branding or marketing will help.”

And here we come to the pathway fork. What the letter seems to outline is a management approach aimed at short-term cost cutting, possibly moving in the direction of a for-profit model, at the likely expense of academic quality and student benefit. The letter suggests the development is relatively new, but gaining ground.

The letter is one perspective of what’s happening at CWI, and no doubt there are others. But if the point of the letter is anywhere near right (there’s been no substantial response yet from either the administration or trustees, who may well have a differing view), then a bust of some kind could follow the boom. (Maybe the pair of community votes against CWI bond issues were an early warning signal.)

The window for course correction before that happens won’t stay open for long.
 

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