Article in Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed published an article on the elimination of the political science program at Marian on December 8, 2021. Click for a link to the article. You can download a pdf or read the article below.

“Marian political science faculty and alumni fight for program”
Submitted by Colleen Flaherty on December 8, 2021 – 3:00am

Marian University in Indianapolis is closing its political science program and
laying off the program’s last remaining tenured professor, an expert in U.S.
government. Some program alumni and faculty members are upset about the
decision and, perhaps more than that, mystified: they say Marian has not
offered a clear rationale for nixing political science, which has as many
declared majors as most other liberal arts programs on campus this year—and
which is arguably as important as ever, given the troubled state of U.S. political

No other major is targeted for elimination.

“I had no idea this was coming. I was completely blindsided,” said Johnny
Goldfinger, Marian’s last tenured professor of political science, who heard the
news in July from his provost. “I didn’t even know that this was even being
thought about, quite frankly.”

The university’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the program in a closed
meeting earlier this month. Current majors will be allowed to finish their
program of study, but the program must stop accepting new majors.

Marian says it has consistently raised questions about the political science
program’s quality and average annual numbers of graduating majors. Yet
Goldfinger and Pierre Atlas, who was until recently the program’s other
tenured professor, deny this.

Atlas, who resigned from Marian over the summer after it denied his sabbatical
request and subsequent request for unpaid research leave for reasons that
remain unclear to him, recalled, “There was always a desire to increase
enrollment. But that was a generic, across-the-board desire for all liberal arts
majors. The fact is that political science was doing well in the context of the
liberal arts.”

The American Political Science Association wrote a letter [1] to Marian, asking it
to reconsider its decision. Steven Rathgeb Smith, executive director of the
association, said in an interview Tuesday that while he’s seen some other
institutions cut back their political science programs of late in response to
financial pressures, “it’s usually been part of an overall effort that has been
focused on the humanities and other social science departments, as well.”

Marian, meanwhile, appears to have “singled out political science for closure
and is not taking a more comprehensive approach to thinking about how they
would put in place cutbacks.”

Smith noted another trend in political science, especially at larger universities:
many departments’ enrollments are on the rise, “because of the intense
interest in politics and political polarization, and a lot more engagement with
the political process and service learning and internships.”

Beyond Goldfinger and alumni, Marian’s faculty and administrators with joint
faculty status voted against the proposal to eliminate political science last
month, 104 to 26. A petition opposing the decision has also gathered 600

Brad Wucher, a university spokesperson, said via email, “As part of Marian
University’s mission to provide the highest quality education to our students,
we are continuously assessing our academic programs.” Recently, he said,
“the faculty and administration completed a comprehensive review of the
political science program, and it was determined that, based on academic
quality, student demand and persistence, and career opportunities, we could
better serve our students by incorporating the key aspects of the political
science major and minor into other areas of study, including history, sociology
and global studies.”

A Selective Target’

Atlas, who helped found Marian’s political science major in 2002, and who is
now a senior lecturer at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and
Environmental Affairs at Indiana University at Bloomington, said the Marian
faculty did redesign the major at one point—because professors wanted to, not
because they were told to do so.

“It is a selective target,” Atlas said of the university’s plan for political science.
“It was like a Pearl Harbor sneak attack. Nobody saw it coming, and there was
never a good-faith attempt to try and fix the program. It was ‘We’re gonna get
rid of it.’”

Why target political science? Atlas said he had some ideas, boiling down to
personalities and politics, but he didn’t want to speculate on the record.

Goldfinger said he thinks it’s because he formed the college’s first chapter of
the American Association of University Professors in 2019, after about a year
of organizing. The AAUP is a union on some campuses, but it’s an advocacy
chapter at Marian. Both before the chapter existed and now, as its leader,
Goldfinger said he’s been an outspoken proponent of shared governance on
campus—and that Marian’s president, Daniel J. Elsener, doesn’t take kindly to
faculty dissent. Most recently, Goldfinger said he opposed the planned
elimination of two of four threatened minors—art history and classics—on the
grounds that they were not costing the university anything to retain.

Now, fighting for the future of political science, Goldfinger has posted student
and alumni testimonials, significant documents, and data to a website called [2]. This is a reference to a comment that multiple professors
remember Elsener making in 2019—right around the time the AAUP chapter
was formed—in response to a faculty engagement survey. That survey
revealed unexpectedly low faculty satisfaction rates, professors said, and
Elsener is said to have shown the faculty a PowerPoint slide featuring
livestock yoked to a wagon and said that everyone must be “pulling in the
same direction.” Any problems at Marian came down to a few “bad apples,”
Elsener also allegedly said.

Matthew Duncan, an Indiana-based lawyer who graduated from Marian’s
political science program in 2014 before interning for Republican lawmakers in
Indianapolis, has appealed independently to Elsener to retain the political
science major. Duncan said Tuesday that Elsener called him to discuss the
matter and that Elsener “talked at length about how he thought the political
science program needed to be improved or overhauled. And he said
something like, ‘You know, unfortunately, due to tenure, it’s difficult to replace
the faculty.’”

Duncan, who attributes much of his professional success to the political
science program, said, “I love Marian—it was the greatest decision I’ve ever
made in my life. I made many lifelong friends there.” Yet he said he and “a
number of other political science alumni I have spoken with feel like we’re
going to lose our connection to Marian if this political science elimination is
approved. And I personally am not going to donate any more to the university
if this plan goes through.”

Major Questions

Duncan’s comments echo those gathered by Goldfinger as student
testimonials. “Political science is all around us. There is no escaping politics,”
says one written by Katrina Ornelas, a recent Marian political science alum
and current law school student. “I have always possessed the desire to give
back and show my deep appreciation to my alma mater and all the
opportunities Marian has given me. However, if this proposal to get rid of the
political science department is accepted, I unfortunately will find myself in a
position to not give back or donate to Marian.”

Apart from Goldfinger and Atlas, political science had one more, nontenured,
faculty member. Goldfinger said the university currently plans to retain that
untenured professor and move her to a global studies program that is in the
works. Current political science students will be able to graduate with that
major. In the future, though, students interested in politics—including U.S.
politics—will apparently have to rely on other programs, including global

Goldfinger hasn’t been asked to be a part of that. That violates widely followed
standards on tenure from the AAUP, which say that institutions should make
every attempt to find new positions for tenured faculty members when
programs are eliminated.

According to Goldfinger’s accounting, political science at Marian has 31
current declared majors—as many as chemistry and more than English,
sociology, graphic design, philosophy and a dozen other unthreatened majors.
Eight programs currently outrank political science in terms of declared majors.

Wucher, the university spokesperson, said that while many Marian students
begin as political science majors, “on average, only four students graduate per
year with that degree, instead finding their way into related areas in the social
and behavioral sciences. This academic program change is, in part, a
response to that student behavior.”

Wucher did not immediately provide comparative data as to how many
students graduate from other programs each year, on average. But he said
that programs with similar numbers to political science may be at risk if they do
not show progress toward improvement.

Goldfinger shared data on annual political science majors since 2012. That
year, there were six. The next year there were seven. In 2015 and 2016, there
were four each, and the next year total graduates dipped to zero. Numbers
have increased every year since, to eight in 2021.

According to information from 2019, political science graduated more
majors than 50 other programs that year.

Marian’s original written program elimination proposal, from August, cites a
“program analysis and personnel changes,” and the college’s decision to
“pursue a different direction for its social science programs.” Goldfinger,
among others, pushed back on this rationale and received a bullet point–style
addendum as to why political science was no longer viable. “There was a
major program revision and since that time there has been no significant
increase in majors,” that addendum said in part, and “there was no clear
argument presented on what makes political science at Marian distinctive
when compared to competitors.”

Marian has also explained its decision by saying that political science has one
remaining faculty member and “no intention to create additional faculty lines.”
This is presumably the university’s lack of intention, as Atlas said he assumed
he would be replaced when he left.

The university’s plan has at least one fan among political science alumni: Joe
Elsener, President Elsener’s son, who is currently chair of the Marion County
Republican Party.

“I love my liberal arts education, but I definitely got a sense when I got on this
side of it and I got my first campaign job in 2012 that a lot of what I studied day
to day had nothing to do with what I was doing professionally—and I have
never met a colleague who was also a political science major from any other
school that didn’t agree with me,” Joe Elsener said Tuesday. “A lot of what we
ended up doing was really focused on data and analytics, and using data, the
marketing aspect of it, the targeting aspect of it.”

Joe Elsener continued, “That’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot at Marion, and it
was phenomenal and I loved it—again, reading, writing, critical thinking. But I
think the way they’re reforming this major and what they ultimately end up
turning it, I’m hoping, it sounds like you’re still going to get that foundation of
reading, writing and critical thinking, but hopefully more of the economics, data
analytics, global studies—those type of things.”

Academic Freedom [3]
Faculty [4]
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