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Undermining higher education: a curious case at Columbia College Chicago

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The contract of Randy Albers, the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago and one of the key forces behind Chicago’s indelible literary profile, will not be renewed.

We—the 70 adjunct and dozen full-timers employed by the department—were informed Friday night. Via email. Of the hundreds (if not thousands) of announcements and memos I’ve received in my seven years of employment, I can’t recall ever getting one on Friday night.

Eliza Nichols, Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts, wrote: “Randy’s distinguished record of accomplishments during his many years of service speaks for itself.”

Oh. Then why is he no longer the Chair?

For the past year, Randy and his full-time staff have been saddled with triple duty of teaching, administrative duties, and the buzzsaw of academic buzz words, Prioritization. I’ve never envied the committees, meetings, and bureaucratic initiatives imposed on the full-time faculty, but this Prioritization seemed especially odious. Each Department has to justify every dollar spent and identify how the programs serve the college. The college hired a higher education consultant company run by Bob Dickeson, called Academic Strategy Partners—the Bain Capital of academia—to trim the fat from the bloated budget. A necessary goal, to be sure, but to hire an outside company to assess the state of the college seems like an admission of incompetence on the part of the administration. This has been reinforced throughout the muddy process.

No one knows if our department will still exist. There are mutterings that the Fiction Writing Department will absorb the Poetry and Creative Nonfiction segments of the English Department and be called a Creative Writing Department. This is not a novel idea. Still, no one except perhaps Dickeson, knows how or when or why.

In the late-night letter regarding Randy, there was no mention of the Chair position or a successor. No mention of anything moving forward from Dean Eliza Nichols except for praise of Randy’s 16 years of service.

“Randy has always worked with heart and sincerity and has consistently placed the student at the center of everything the department does. Student centeredness is, indeed, the hallmark of the Fiction Writing department under Randy’s leadership,” Nichols wrote.

Aww. A fine summation, no doubt, but it really lacks the specifics that are so prized by the Prioritization process.

Randy founded the annual literary festival, Story Week Festival of Writers, a promotional boon for the college and the largest and most well-regarded annual literary event in Chicago besides, arguably, the Printers Row Literary Festival. The weeklong series of free readings, panels, and events has featured students, faculty, editors, publishers, agents, and award-winning writers such as “Sherman Alexie, Dorothy Allison, A. Manette Ansay, Edwidge Danticat, Don De Grazia, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Jane Hamilton, Charles Johnson, Joe Meno, Bharati Mukherjee, Richard Price, Hubert Selby, Jr., April Sinclair, Irvine Welsh, John Edgar Wideman, and many, many others.” This March features National Book Award nominee Bonnie Jo Campbell, John Sayles, Dagoberto Glib, Christine Sneed and others. Check it out—it could be the last.

Vital to Chicago’s literary profile, Story Week is also instrumental in Randy’s vision of the community of writing that starts in the classroom and extends beyond borders to that essential conversation between reader and writer.

Randy is also responsible for the current size, retention, and graduation rate of Fiction Writing Department students, the largest in the College of Liberal Arts with an estimated 500. The graduate program, which boasts 60 candidates, recently ranked in Poets & Writers annual Best MFA Programs, most of which are evaluated by fellowships offered, something missing from the MFA Program at Columbia. It got Honorable Mention, ranking 54, which is impressive considering the lack of fellowships. Randy has taken a small, quirky writing program and turned into a nationally acclaimed, quirky writing program.

Hair Trigger, the annual student anthology that Randy has fostered, consistently wins first-place Gold Ribbon awards at the Columbia (in New York—no affiliation) Scholastic Press Association, that’s first place out of nearly one thousand submitted journals and magazines. On the other end, the Young Authors program receives over 1000 submissions a year from high school students to its annual competition and has been recognized as the vanguard for teen writing competitions.

Most importantly, and something Nichols acknowledges, is Randy’s steadfast presence and support in the literary and professional endeavors of students and faculty. “Generations of students have gone on to become gifted writers, writing teachers and writing professionals,” Nichols wrote, rather vaguely.

Randy knows what every writer should know and only the best administrators know: people. Randy created an environment that fostered creativity, encouraged critical thought, stressed the value of the individual in voice and in ambition, and championed the work of students and faculty alike. Randy led by empowering every one he encountered, from the wayward teen writer and their skeptical parent to the ambitious grad student and the desperate adjunct.

Personally, I wouldn’t be teaching in the Fiction Department if not for Randy. My second semester as a grad student (I studied economics as an undergrad years before), in a precarious financial state, I was considering dropping the program. At a chance encounter at one of the many events sponsored by the program, Randy introduced himself and asked a very simple question: “How’s the writing?”

What more does a writing student want than to engage in their writing? This personal connection is the essence of the department with Randy as its Chair. In subsequent conversations as a student and in later meetings as an adjunct, the thing that strikes me about Randy is his ability to listen and ask the singular best question. Any educator, any writer, and every administrator would benefit from this model.

Whatever the state of the department, and whatever happens to my job because of Prioritization (it is now obvious that Prioritization is an excuse to pass an agenda that would not have been passed otherwise) I’m lucky to have worked with Randy. And I stress ‘with’ because it never felt like you were working ‘under’ him, which is a rare thing in any business, but especially in the ego-charged business of higher education.

In some ways, we as colleagues and as a student body, are getting Randy back. He’ll be full-time faculty, he’ll be teaching what he knows instead of having to justify himself to an organization blinded by real results. In that sense, he must be relieved.

The logic behind not renewing the contract of a man responsible for raising the profile of the college, attracting a great number of students and professionals to the college, and continually instilling success on every measurable level, is baffling.

It seems fitting, then, that no successor—no Chair—has been named. It was best filled by Randy Albers.

*There are several movements against Prioritization at Columbia:

March 1st is National Day of Student Action at Columbia College Chicago

There is an Occupy Columbia College Facebook page

The NEA, along with the adjuncts' union at Columbia, P-fac, will be holding a rally for fair contracts and student rights on March 1st, followed by its annual convention from March 2-4.

All of this will be occurring one block away from the AWP's annual conference at the Hilton.

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