Death of an ESL Program

The fall 2012 American Language Program pre-semester meeting began like any other. I chatted with my fellow University of Connecticut (UConn) adjuncts, then settled back to check my rosters. Good news. Enrollment was up again. Our program in Stamford, Connecticut, an hour north of New York City, continued to draw ESL and ESP students from across southern Connecticut and the greater New York City area.

Our director entered, sat down and said, “I have an announcement to make. The American Language Program will be closing at the end of the spring semester, 2013.”
Through a fog of disbelief, someone blurted, “Why?”

Facts and figures flew back and forth. Anger collided with indignation yet nothing registered. A wall of denial had numbed me into silence. Only later was I able to piece it together; only later did I realize that our program’s demise was part of a master plan. That plan is to put “UConn academics in the Final Four” and make UConn a world-class university.

For the uninitiated, the yearly U.S. national collegiate basketball tournament is called the Final Four. The final four teams play off to determine the national champion with UConn never far from the spotlight. To date, the UConn women have won the national basketball championship eight times, the men fifteen. Few schools can rival UConn’s Final Four record.

As a value proposition, the Final Four metaphor is appealing. Yet scratch the surface and reality rears its ugly head. In 2011, the UConn men’s basketball team had a graduation rate of 31%, making it the third worst team academically in the nation after number two, the University of Alabama-Birmingham (25%), and the top seed, the University of Arizona (20%).

The irony that UConn’s marquee product—the men’s basketball team—is a Final Four academic failure has failed to blur UConn’s vision, one that I suspect is driven by Ivy-League envy. UConn, a state-subsidized school, has always been a poor cousin in the rarefied halls of New England academia. And for good reason: UConn is surrounded by private, cash-rich, world-class academic institutions. Yale, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, NYU, Wellesley, Princeton, and Brown are but a stone’s throw from Storrs, UConn’s main campus.

But all that is about to change. Enter Susan Herbst. Elected president of UConn in 2011, she wasted no time in shaking things up. For UConn to become a world-class contender, an outside consulting firm concluded that UConn’s campus-wide continuing education (con ed) program had to go. That was the death knell for the American Language Program, not to mention myriad other con ed programs, instructors, and support staff. Meanwhile, UConn went on a hiring binge. A world-class university needs world-class professors just like it needs a hall-of-fame basketball coach like Jim Calhoun.

For the year ending 2013, the since-retired Calhoun made 3 million dollars, making him Connecticut’s “highest paid state employee.” All this while the UConn men’s team was banned from 2013 tournament play for failing to meet minimum academic standards set by the NCAA. Nowhere in the consultant’s report does it mention that UConn could hire a department full of world-class professors and save con ed in the process by rethinking Calhoun’s salary and the 1.7 million dollars he got “for . . . media-related appearances.”

For the record, Ms. Herbst makes $738,000.00 a year. For the record, the Connecticut state government has approved a $1.5 billion, 10-year investment in the University of Connecticut. According to Ms. Herbst, the “$1.5 billion . . . will enable [UConn] to . . . enroll many more students . . . and hire hundreds of additional faculty, over and above our existing faculty hiring program.”

For the record, I had one salary increase in 11 years.

At the start of the fall 2012 semester, the business of teaching distracted me from the shock of being terminated. Our students were informed mid-fall 2012, and with that, the wound reopened. Our students were as dumbfounded as the faculty. In a strange twist, the more I tried to explain UConn’s decision, the more I sounded like I was defending it. In the end, I just shrugged and shook my head. Complaining was futile. The program was closing. We’d had no voice in the beginning. We had no voice in the end.

As the spring 2013 semester progressed, sadness overwhelmed me. Eleven years of teaching ESL and ESP at Stamford, UConn, and not once did I have to discipline or confront any of my noncredit students, a stark contrast to the horror stories I always heard about full-time credit students. In contrast, my students were conscientious, enthusiastic, inspiring, and disciplined. I learned as much from them as they did from me. Yet it was all slipping away. We were all just going through the motions, trying our best to avoid any mention of the end.

The end came on 6 May 2013. A month earlier, one of my students had sent a letter to Ms. Herbst along with a petition urging UConn to reconsider eliminating the American Language Program. My student got no reply. On 5 May, the day before the end, I decided to put pen to paper.

I sent an open email to Ms. Herbst. I wanted to tell her that Stamford’s Hispanic population is 23% and growing fast. I wanted to tell her that 37% of residents are foreign born and that 45% speak a language other than English at home. I wanted to tell her that 85% of residents are high school grads and 44% are college grads making Stamford one of the most educated cities in America. I wanted to tell her that transportation is not an issue; our campus is five minutes from the train station and Interstate 95. I wanted to tell her that the faculty is the best I have ever worked with; they are innovative, motivated, published, and they love their work. I wanted to tell her that every day I enter the classroom, I count my blessings. Great students. Great faculty. Great school. I should be so lucky.

That was the email I wanted to write. Instead, I wrote this one. I was expecting no reply. I got none.

Subject: The closing of the American Language Program, Stamford campus

Dear Ms. Herbst,

My name is Bruce Stirling. For the past eleven years, I have been an adjunct in the American Language Program (ALP). The ALP is part of UConn Stamford’s Continuing Education program. The ALP offers non credit, English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses to non native, English-speaking students.

On May 6, 2013, the ALP will close its doors due to a directive eliminating this program. This policy is not only shortsighted, but in its rush to make UConn “a world class” university, it adversely affects the very resource that makes UConn great: its students, particularly those non native, English-speaking students in southern Connecticut seeking to improve their English both academically and professionally.

ALP courses are indeed non credit; however, this fact alone does not diminish the achievements of its students. On the contrary, ALP students represent a vibrant cultural diversity and a remarkable array of professions and degrees. The spring 2013 semester was no exception. I had the privilege to teach a human rights lawyer from Peru, a software engineer from Cameroon, a bank manager from Guatemala, a translator from Italy, a financial planner from Brazil, an industrial engineer from Colombia, and a geologist from Germany.

My students, like all ALP students, demonstrated a consistent level of academic excellence that made the American Language Program the top ESL program in Connecticut. Many ALP students have gone on to find work or pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in America, confident in their ability to communicate in English thanks to their commitment to academic excellence and to the dedication of the ALP teaching staff.

America has always prided itself on being the land of opportunity. The American Language Program embodied this spirit. The American Language Program was “world class” long before this phrase entered UConn’s marketing mix. Moreover, for many ALP students, the American Language Program was the first step on the path to the American dream. Sadly, this dream will come to an end on May 6, 2013.

Sincerely,
Bruce Stirling

About Bruce Stirling

Bruce Stirling
Bruce Stirling has been teaching ESL and ESP for 25 years. His TOEFL books are available in print and as apps. For more, visit Bruce Stirling TOEFL PRO at facebook.com.
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3 Responses to Death of an ESL Program

  1. Steve Kerns says:

    Very sad. So many American universities certainly have lost their ways. I teach SEI classes to high school students in Arizona. I believe I speak for many English teachers in saying I could never go back to a traditional high school classroom after my time teaching students who (1) want to learn, (2) are grateful they have ESL classes, and (3) are preparing themselves to be productive members of society. I am not trying to bash natural born U.S. kids, but there has to be place for non-English speakers at every level of American education.

  2. Tara Arntsen Tara Arntsen says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s a very powerful post. I wonder how many other ESL programs have been negatively impacted in recent years for any number of reasons when they should have been developed even further.

  3. Crystal says:

    Thank you for sharing.

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