HARRISBURG — With the art program on the chopping block, students at Southeastern Illinois College have joined their instructor, Sara DeNeal, in urging the board to reconsider.
At the Jan. 21 board meeting, Vice President Karen Weiss explained why the college was seeking to eliminate arts and business certificate and degree programs.
“Enrollment patterns coupled with declining tuition revenue and state disinvestment in higher education make them necessary,” she said.
DeNeal sees it differently.
“If you want to increase enrollment, you don’t cut programs,” she said.
DeNeal currently teaches five classes: Art Appreciation; Painting; advanced painting; Wallet; and Ceramics.
While she says there are only eight graduate students enrolled in the art program, 84 students are enrolled in her classes.
That’s a bit less than normal, she said, but let’s say the drop in enrollment isn’t specific to CIS. In February, DeNeal was informed that they needed to increase registrations. The pandemic hit in March, which DeNeal said made recruiting impossible.
“Normally we go to high schools or art shows, or teachers send us information about students,” she said.
The pandemic has forced the cancellation of shows and put high school teachers in a difficult position to interact with their students through remote or blended learning.
A December article from NPR backs up the claim of a national drop in enrollment.
Citing data from the National Student Clearinghouse, the article says undergraduate enrollment fell by more than 10% at community colleges, or about 544,000 students.
DeNeal fears that cutting the art program will only further decline in enrollment.
“If a student can afford it, they’ll just go somewhere else,” she said.
CIS officials said art classes will be offered through the community college’s SHARE program.
DeNeal thinks that’s unrealistic.
“We have students from Hardin and Pope counties already driving 45 to 60 minutes one way,” she said. “When they find out they have to go to John A. Logan or Rend Lake, they’re unlikely to choose that option.”
Arts education major Mackenzie Gidcumb addressed the CIS board in January.
“SIC has always been a school where students can receive a comprehensive education, and that includes the visual arts,” she said in a letter to the board. “My fear is that by cutting the entire art curriculum, you’re not just losing art majors, but other students who are looking for that comprehensive education.”
Former Marion student Christopher Walle also addressed the board in writing.
“The art program is so helpful for prospective art students who need the courses and curriculum to go to graduate art school,” wrote Walle, who earned an associate’s degree at SIC. “There are several jobs that require different types of art, such as visual artist, art therapist, art teacher, illustrator, arts administrator, film, theater, the list goes on.
“Art plays a big role in people’s lives, art is everywhere, even when people can’t see it. We couldn’t watch movies, see magazines, see posters and admire album covers. albums if it wasn’t for that.”
The CIS board is due to meet at 6 p.m. on February 16. DeNeal hopes he will reconsider and seek other funding opportunities, including $2.2 million in federal relief funds expected to be available through the Emergency Education Stabilization Funding Act.
It is also expected that additional PELL grant funding will be available in the fall.
Regardless of the decision, DeNeal said she was proud of her students for stepping up.
“I used this opportunity to teach students about advocacy and the importance of speaking from your heart and making your voice heard by those who make decisions,” she said.
“I’m really proud of my students who have taken ownership of their program and are doing what they can to save it.”
• Disclosure: Sara DeNeal is the wife of Harrisburg Register editor R. Travis DeNeal. He had no role in reporting and writing this story.