Undermining Higher Education: a curious case at Columbia College Chicago

Chair, Randy Albers

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, (I believe it is called) Academic Impressions—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.

create...change...but don't tell anyone why

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 literary successes and endeavors of students and faculty alike. Randy lead 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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  1. #1 by Viki on 02/27/2012 - 12:17 PM

    I’m giving you a standing ovation right now, Rob.

  2. #2 by Yokas on 02/27/2012 - 12:45 PM

    Well done, Rob. Bravo.

  3. #3 by Behnam on 02/27/2012 - 12:50 PM

    This is a fucking crime if I’ve ever heard one. Columbia College Chicago isn’t just a fiction writing program–it is the foundation of the creative writing community in Chicago and by cutting its head off, Columbia College is essentially handicapping literary growth in one of the few cities that has put prose before poetry and screenwriting. To shelf the written word because it doesn’t fit into their “budget,” despite the fact that it has helmed countless literary events, influenced hundreds of published and emerging authors, and been the only place at Columbia College where students feel “at home,” since most students of other majors at Columbia simply feel they go to their classes and just go back to the apartments, unlike the dedicated individuals of our department, is like opening a carton of eggs and tossing the gold one away, because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the dozen. I, for one, will not sit and spin on this shit and someone’s going to hear about my disappointment, as if it weren’t for the creative writing program at Columbia, I might still consider it a joke school.

    • #4 by Robert Duffer on 02/27/2012 - 4:58 PM

      They’re not shelfing the written word or the department, as far as we know. Randy is still faculty, and it is unlikely that the college will proceed without the Fiction Department; if they did it would most likely be under the banner of a Creative Writing Department, though no one knows what elements of the FWD pedagogy or approach would remain. No one knows much, it seems, but you’re input to the college might help them make the best decision. It would help if we knew what the hell we were dealing with in terms of the administrations desires and intentions. This whole prioritization thing seems like a smokescreen to pass a preexisting agenda.

  4. #5 by Patrick J. Salem on 02/27/2012 - 1:03 PM

    I’ve linked the hell out of this one, Rob. I hope it makes a difference.

    • #6 by Robert Duffer on 02/27/2012 - 4:59 PM

      Yeah, Patrick, we don’t really know what we’re up against, if anything. All I do know is the treatment of Randy by the college is embarrassing. The best course of action is to figure out what is going on then respond appropriately, intelligently and constructively.

  5. #7 by Patrick J. Salem on 02/27/2012 - 1:09 PM

    I’d also like to add that I’ve had similar ‘how’s the writing’ conversations with Randy, and one memorable January afternoon on Michigan Avenue, he and I stood in a cold wind discussing the work of my fourth grade Story Workshop class. I walked away feeling warm with pride that he noticed not just my work as a writer but also as a teacher.

  6. #8 by Marcia on 02/27/2012 - 1:26 PM

    Well said, Rob! And yet there is so much more to say about Randy and all he does and has done.

    • #9 by Robert Duffer on 02/27/2012 - 5:01 PM

      Yeah, Marcia, I didn’t come close to expressing how influential he has been for so many people and organizations. The college should be embarrassed for not rewarding him professionally for all he’s done.

  7. #10 by John Galt on 02/28/2012 - 1:47 PM

    Great article, Duffer. Contrary to what some would say, cooler heads have prevailed–for a long time. Randy’s termination and today’s recs. were the final straw for many people who actually currently work at Columbia. Some people might be ignorant of the facts, but they should educate themselves before telling those who already have how to act.

    • #11 by Robert Duffer on 02/28/2012 - 3:12 PM

      Who is John Galt? Yes!
      The biggest problem has been the lack of information. It’s Catch-22.

  8. #12 by John Galt on 02/28/2012 - 2:32 PM

    PS: The Provost’s rec. today was to terminate Fiction Writing Teacher Training classes. Any more questions?

    • #13 by Viki on 02/28/2012 - 2:36 PM

      While it’s just a recommendation, as far as I’m concerned, the writing is on the wall. Cease teacher training, and Story Workshop will die with all of us who teach it.

    • #14 by Robert Duffer on 02/28/2012 - 3:15 PM

      As the evidence mounts, the goal is becoming clear. They chopped off the head; now they want to chop off a leg; soon, their agenda will devour the body–the student body.

  9. #15 by Viki on 02/28/2012 - 2:38 PM

    Some of us have created a site on which a petition is posted. To sign, use the site contact form and your name will be added. To have your own testimonial about Randy Albers, the Fiction Writing Department, and/or Story Workshop included, send via the contact form.


    Thanks. Sorry to spam your comments, Rob.

    • #16 by Robert Duffer on 02/28/2012 - 3:13 PM

      That’s not spam, Viki. This is what’s going on.
      Marvin G.

      • #17 by Viki on 02/28/2012 - 3:17 PM

        Thank you, sir.

      • #18 by Viki on 02/28/2012 - 5:00 PM

        Also, I must note that that photograph of me when I was four has been following me around the internet for years. Every time I post on a blog, it appears. Freaks me out. But that’s what I looked like when I was four.

  10. #19 by John Galt on 02/28/2012 - 4:56 PM

    Um, people? Seriously? Can we all just act like adults here and not jump to hysterical conclusions? It’s not like they terminated Randy’s Chairmanship or anything crazy like that. I mean… wait… what?

  11. #20 by Pearl Buck on 02/29/2012 - 12:16 PM

    Let’s call a spade a spade here. The administrator responsible for Randy’s termination said it wouldn’t be “fair” to keep Randy because it would look like Fiction “won” a beef from 25 years ago. This is mind boggling. Who cares if a few disgruntled old-timers in the English department are still bitterly chewing on things that happened a quarter-century ago? THIS is why a beloved and acclaimed institution will be destroyed? THIS is why the best Chair at Columbia is losing his job? This is embarrassing is what it is.

    • #21 by Viki on 02/29/2012 - 12:42 PM

      So, some have been holding a grudge for 25 years and now students, faculty members and, truthfully, the reputation of the entire College has to suffer? The “beef” you speak of is never mentioned in the Fiction Writing Department, except in terms of the history of how the department began to evolve into what it is today. It’s part of our lore.

      And it speaks to the likelihood that, despite assertions that no final decisions have been made as a result of this prioritization process, much of these recommendations are just part of a game being played. And that the outcome might already be a foregone conclusion.

      Which is why we need to call attention to the recommendations being made, and speak out against them now, before decisions are final, approved and irrevocable.

  12. #22 by Pearl Buck on 02/29/2012 - 12:53 PM

    The things that happened a quarter-century ago are never discussed in Fiction Writing classes. Sadly, there are still a couple embittered old-timers in English who bitterly re-hash the ’80’s during class time. It’s sad enough that they actually teach at Columbia, but that their inability to move on would actually impact administrative decision-making is so stupid it’s surreal.

    • #23 by Viki on 02/29/2012 - 1:21 PM

      Which calls into question this notion of “change.” How can these recommendations and especially this decision to not retain Randy Albers as chair be cast as positive change when they’re based upon silly feuds that happened so long ago? I started at Columbia, in the Fiction Writing Department, a few years after the departments split. I never heard about it then, in the early ’90s from any faculty members, except in terms of regret, frankly, that it had gone badly.

      Is it worth revisiting what happened back then, for perspective purposes? Or is it best to leave it lie where it’s been (as far as the FWD has been concerned)–in the trash heap of bad history.

      So, what happens when teacher-training, and along with it, the Story Workshop approached being used in core fiction writing classes, is phased out and abolished? Seems to me that wouldn’t be “fair,” as it would look like English “won” that old beef. A beef, mind you, that the Fiction Department hasn’t given a crap about for more than 20 years.

    • #24 by Robert Duffer on 02/29/2012 - 1:27 PM

      The embarrassment mounts. The pretext of fairness is such a hypocrisy.

      • #25 by Viki on 02/29/2012 - 1:38 PM

        Seriously. Who gives a flip about fairness to a handful of people holding a personally-motivated grudge for more than 25 years?

        How about fairness to STUDENTS? Fairness to FACULTY, both full and part time?

        Isn’t this an institution of higher learning? Isn’t the business of Columbia College to not just educate students, but to prepare them for careers in the arts? Is this the kind of example we want to set for students?

        The administration is out of touch with what this school is all about. It’s not supposed to be a financial venture. It’s not a business. It’s a SCHOOL.

        And any teachers or administrators who aren’t here with their hearts and minds focused on providing the best education possible shouldn’t be here. Go get a job in the financial sector. Go run a manufacturing business.

        I grew up within the context of a family business. Long-held grudges threatened to destroy what my father and his father before him had built, and my own father has worked very hard to make all of us–my three brothers and I–understand that petty family arguments are not the basis on which to make business decisions. And the success of that business has a lot to do with his efforts to remind us all that business is business, and personal feelings don’t have a place in decision-making processes.

        Basing decisions on silly, ancient hurt feelings will destroy this school. Grow up, people.

  13. #26 by Naomi Kothbauer on 03/01/2012 - 9:30 AM

    I consider myself very fortunate to have gone to Columbia.. the networking and relationships I forged there were undeniably helpful. However, I did have a multitude of bureaucratic nightmares to deal with while attending school there.. SFS, student employment, Residence Life (for whom I worked for 2 years). A lot of the classes are great.. the student orgs are great.. but from my experience, so much of the administration is completely clueless and grossly overpaid, especially in contrast to the faculty. It’s very disappointing to see the administration cut costs that hurt students and teachers, while investing in new real estate and paying top administrators salaries of over $300,000 a year.

    • #27 by Robert Duffer on 03/03/2012 - 8:19 AM

      Your experience, Naomi, sounds consistent with what I’ve been hearing from students for the last few years, especially since the new dorms opened and the administration has been focusing on real estate as part of its vision. Full-time faculty has received a 1% raise in the past three years, part-time faculty have no contract, tuition continues to rise, some students owe upwards of $100K in aid, and the administration claims financial hardship while http://columbiachronicle.com/top-dogs-make-top-dollars/ bonuses and raises. The corporatization of Columbia is under way and it stinks.

  14. #28 by theartfulmonkey on 03/03/2012 - 7:07 PM

    This is horseshit. Albers is the best thing to happen to emerging writers since aderall. WTF? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wished Randy was his dad so you could curl up in his sinewy arms and have him ask you about your day (writing). The meek won’t inherit the earth, the fuckin bean counters will. That’s when it’s over. Chicken shit muthafuckas…

    Rich Santiago ’05

  15. #30 by Pearl Buck on 03/05/2012 - 10:50 AM

    Guys, come on. Let’s look at the truth, here. It’s easy to rail against “the man” and a greedy administration, or whatever, but when the administrator who removed Randy said she did it because it wouldn’t be “fair” because it would look like Fiction “won” the fight with English 25 years ago, SHE WAS BEING HONEST! Randy is gone because of a handful of bitter losers in English. They can’t create anything, so they try to destroy. But don’t take my word for it–ask them.

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