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U. of Chicago Mulls Axing Ed. Department

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Despite protests from students and alumni, the University of Chicago is considering eliminating its venerable department of education.

The dean of the university's social sciences division recommended closing the century-old department after a review raised questions about the quality of its research and its commitment to teaching.

But the recommendation this summer has prompted fierce opposition from many students and graduates. They say the proposal stems from a lukewarm commitment to educational leadership on the part of the university.

The department, founded in 1895 by the renowned philosopher and educator John Dewey, has a primary focus on education research rather than teacher training. It comprises 15 professors and about 160 students.

Richard Saller, the dean of the social sciences division, which includes the education department, last fall requested a review by two professors from outside the department and two education experts from outside the university.

The review, Mr. Saller said, found low morale, varying commitments to research and teaching, and a faculty whose median age is 62 and whose members teach fewer courses than their counterparts in any other department in the division.

"In '94-'95 the median courseload taught by the department was less than what I taught as dean," Mr. Saller said last week in an interview.

After reading the review, he decided to recommend that the department be shut down by 2001. He said his decision was not prompted by financial concerns.

The dean plans to meet with students on Oct. 10, and his recommendation is scheduled for a vote before the division faculty on Nov. 13. If it is approved, the recommendation will go to the university president and provost for final approval.

But Mr. Saller said that if the roughly 170 faculty members in the social sciences division rejected the proposal, he would not pursue it any further.

Although the department has stopped accepting applications for doctoral students based on the possibility that the recommendation will be approved, the school will continue to support its current students.

Uncertain Future

Mr. Saller's recommendation has sparked a flurry of electronic-mail messages and news releases from current and former students.

"As education becomes increasingly important to our societal and economic well-being, the university's decision to close the department of education signals its abandonment of the historic leadership role it could and should play in addressing those challenges," said a statement from a group of students who oppose the move.

"It behooves everybody to keep educational research at Chicago," Kendra Sisserson, a group leader, said in an interview.

Robert Dreeben, the chairman of the education department, said last week that he was skeptical about the department's future. "I'm not sure that the issue is one of keeping the department intact," he said. "The university has done a great deal to make that impossible."

The university, for example, "has been extremely stingy" with the hiring of new faculty for the department over the past 10 years, he said.

But what administrators have failed to address with their proposal, Mr. Dreeben added, is whether and how education research will continue at the University of Chicago.

"There are other ways of doing that besides a department as it's currently constituted, but the university has been essentially silent about that," he said. "It has acted in a fairly summary way."

Mr. Saller, the social sciences dean, said the university should look at education as a universitywide commitment, and he suggested that the department could be replaced by an "interdivisional committee on pedagogy." The university may consider a new focus on teacher training programs, he added.

One prominent alumnus dismissed the idea of an interdivisional committee as "window-dressing."

Lee S. Shulman, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University, and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, said in a statement released by students that without graduate students and faculty members, "the university cannot continue to make contributions to education as a field of study."

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