Faculty Assembly supports reconsideration of English Language Institute closure


Every academic year, Peter Bell, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, said graduate students in the department work with faculty in Pitt’s English Language Institute (ELI) to prepare to communicate effectively in their classroom instruction roles.  

“We will have 10 to 20 graduate students that can go through this (ELI) testing,” he said at the Jan. 18 Faculty Assembly meeting. “And we rely quite heavily — with all of our laboratories, our graduate students and the teaching services — that they can help out.”

Bell spoke of the importance of non-tuition-based language classes that “allow our students that time to go back and practice their conversation, practice being prepared to stand in front of a classroom,” he said. “Quite frankly, some of our students are pretty unforgiving, and somebody will show up here and be put in that classroom in that position. They need that extra practice, and then they get that opportunity to retest and oftentimes are successful that second time around.

“Our graduate student teachers are a very important part, and I think that does have an impact on faculty,” he added. “We cannot continue, or we wouldn't be able to have those students teach and work with us without ELI.”

Bell’s was among the testimonials at Faculty Assembly supporting the ongoing need for ELI services and objecting to a recent directive to close the institute, which has provided intensive training for international students and many others since 1964.

In early December, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences’ Dean Kathleen Blee sent a letter to the Department of Linguistics, with which the English Language Institute is affiliated, informing them the ELI will cease operations effective June 30. The closure will impact eight faculty members. Blee said in her letter that “we will be working with the faculty members’ union representatives to determine how this will impact their employment.”

“Enrollments in English Language Institute programs have declined over the last several years as part of a larger trend of declining enrollments in intensive English programs nationally,” Blee’s letter read.

Linguistics Chair Scott Kiesling said he knows that enrollment in the ELI is cyclical, but he “didn't think that we would lose the whole thing, especially because of all the functions” ELI serves around the University “and with respect to our other for-credit programs.”

Although ELI enrollment has dropped in the past few years because of the pandemic and the Trump administration’s approach to international visitors, he said, numbers are starting to rise again. Kiesling has appealed the decision to Provost Ann Cudd, with whom he has a meeting scheduled later this month. In his letter to Cudd, he asked for another year to see if enrollment returns to pre-pandemic levels.

The provost said in an email that, “We are having conversations about next steps, evaluating the needs of our students and the roles of faculty.”

Kiesling’s sentiments were echoed loudly during Faculty Assembly, which, in a 47-0 vote, supported the postponement and reconsideration of the ELI closure. The statement, directed to Dean Blee and Provost Cudd, said: “The Faculty Assembly stands with our colleagues at the ELI and supports their request for reconsideration of the decision to eliminate the ELI.”

Enriching the Pitt experience

Dawn McCormick, ELI director and teaching professor in the Department of Linguistics, provided an overview of the ELI’s services and its financial challenges. The mission of the program, which began as an Intensive English Language Program (IEP) through a Ford Foundation grant, has broadened through the years to teaching non-credit English classes, supporting matriculated students at the University and contributing to the field of teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“On paper, we are a cost center within the Department of Linguistics,” McCormick noted. “This means that we must earn revenue to pay our expenses, including faculty and staff salaries, fringe costs of University space — which means our classrooms, offices, waiting areas, etc.”

She also noted that ELI was forced by a previous Dietrich School administration to move from the Cathedral of Learning to the Parkvale Building several years ago, where they had to use much of the reserves they were building up to weather the leaner years to instead construct classrooms and offices in the non-Pitt-owned building. ELI also has been charged a fixed rent rather than an overhead percentage from 2012 on, even though Pitt has since bought the Parkvale building.

ELI’s two main revenue streams come from the noncredit Intensive English programs, which include the IEP program that runs in fall, spring and summer terms each year, and a six-week program directed at incoming graduate students to provide English support before they start academic programs at Pitt and neighboring Carnegie Mellon University, McCormick said. The second income stream is from courses taught to support students enrolled in various Pitt schools to use English as an additional language.

ELI faculty are responsible for the state-required English proficiency testing of international teaching assistants and fellows as well as designing and teaching English support classes.

“Our ELI students in the (IEP) serve as conversation partners to University undergraduates to promote international experiences and possibly learn outside the classroom curriculum credit,” McCormick said.

ELI faculty support University Fulbright applicants by reviewing applications and participating in practice interviews and partner with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid and the School of Law to create pathways from IEP to degree programs. In addition, the ELI is associated with 12 Ph.D. dissertations and more than 70 published papers since 2003, she said.

“We go far beyond what you might think of as a cost center with our services,” she said. “We believe that our service directly connects to the Plan for Pitt by supporting the changing student population, enriching the student experience, creating more learning experiences and expanding opportunities for global engagement.”

Thinking bigger

Chris Bonneau, former Senate president and political science faculty member, noted that while asking to keep the ELI open one more year provides procedural benefits, it won’t address the resulting gap in curriculum and services.

“If we believe that the ELI is serving this crucial and critical and important curricular function as a support unit, not just in the Dietrich School, but across all schools, with graduate students and faculty … then we should be advocating for more than just a year from the Assembly perspective. That is, we should be advocating for a reconsideration.”

“I think the one-year stopgap is — it's not the worst, the worst is no change — but a one-year stopgap isn’t (helping the) University much,” he added. “It helps the faculty and staff involved … We should do that, but I think we should think bigger.”

Kiesling believes the closure decision was made in the absence of a thorough process. “I think if the proper process is followed, a different decision comes about,” he said, “because there are things that the ELI does that you just heard about that I don't think everyone took into consideration, and once those are taken into consideration, we look at this unit in a very different way.”

Having the ELI operate for an additional year, as Kiesling requested, “with the proper process, with the dean who is going to be dean after June 30, whoever that is, is the way to go about that. And there all kinds of options,” he said, noting he argued last fall that “the logical thing to do here is to actually invest more into the ELI and make it stronger. And then it will grow from there.”

Language and law

Linda Tashbook, adjunct professor of law, shared a letter from Charles T. Kotuby Jr., executive director of the Center for International Legal Education at the School of Law expressing disappointment in the closure decision.

“Law school teaches the law, but it also teaches a trade,” Kotuby shared, “and if we are serious about training foreign lawyers to become stewards of the rule of law, we must also be serious in teaching them how to practice law in English. The closure of ELI will not only decrease enrollment of foreign law students at Pitt, but with less of those law students becoming lawyers in their home countries, it will slowly-but-surely decrease our visibility and reputation where we have worked so hard to grow it.”

Responding to a question about how students will meet the threshold level of English comprehensibility in the ELI’s absence, McCormick said the Department of Linguistics offers multiple support classes for matriculated students as well as classes in the schools of Engineering, and Computing and Information.

“They have more specialized classes that we wind up teaching,” she said. “The testing we do for that is currently done by a faculty member who is not one of the eight (ELI faculty who will lose their jobs). Although I don't know what will happen with responsibility assignments within the department if the ELI closes as planned.”

Melanie Scott, associate professor in the Department of Surgery, raised questions of legal ramifications in closing ELI if state-mandated language standards cannot be maintained.

“So apart from just losing a resource, it might be opening itself up to potential litigation, partly because the process that it's laid down within the school wasn't followed, but also because (ELI seems) to be fulfilling a (language-learning) requirement associated with state legislation,” she said. “And if that isn't upheld, and if there's no other resource to do that, then they might be opening themselves up to legal issues. As that seems to be something the administration is very sensitive to, that might be a way of leveraging that.”

While Kiesling has yet to meet with Provost Cudd, Senate President Robin Kear said she appreciated the discussion and Faculty Assembly adding support for the long-running ELI. 

“I thought it was important, since this was so very public, to talk about it now, and to make our voice known before anything is, I hope, finally decided on how to move forward,” she said. “So I hope this helps our colleagues, and I hope it helps for us to be able to continue the important services that are offered by the ELI, university-wide, for the future.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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