By SUSAN JONES
Pitt’s English Language Institute has provided intensive training for international students and others since 1964, but this semester may be its swan song.
In early December, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences’ Dean Kathleen Blee sent a letter to the Department of Linguistics, of which the English Language Institute (ELI) is a part, informing them that as of June 30, 2023, the ELI will cease operations. Her letter said that “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.”
Linguistics Chair Scott Kiesling said he was aware of ELI’s financial struggles, but, “I didn't think that we would lose the whole thing, especially because of all the functions that the ELI serves around the University and with respect to our other for-credit programs.”
Keisling said enrollment at the ELI has definitely been cyclical during his 22 years at Pitt, with high demand followed by drops caused by world events, such as the SARS virus outbreak in 2002, the 2008 recession and the 9/11 attacks.
“For the most part, the ELI has been able to weather those partially because they know its cyclical, so in good times they were setting aside funds just for that eventuality,” he said. “COVID was just a lot bigger. The drop is much more precipitous. And the return is much slower.”
He said that although ELI enrollment has dropped over the past few years because of the pandemic and the Trump administration’s approach to international visitors, the numbers are starting to rise again.
For instance, in fall 2016, there were around 150 students. That dropped to 120 in 2019 and 30 to 40 in 2020 and 2021. In summer 2022, there were more than 60 students and fall 2022 had 85 participate.
The English Language Institute is set up to be self-sustaining financially, Kiesling said, and has lost money in the past few years. But he said that’s because of more than just declining enrollment.
Prior to 2012, ELI paid a per-pupil tax to the Dietrich School before moving to the self-sustaining model. The institute also used to be housed in the Cathedral of Learning, but now must pay rent back to the University for its space in the Parkvale Building on Forbes Avenue. Kiesling said there have been talks during the past year about moving to a smaller space, but nothing has happened.
There are 10 faculty at ELI. Two are also faculty in linguistics, and will stay on in that capacity.
Dean Blee said in her letter to the department that, “The eight faculty members impacted by this closure are represented by the faculty union’s bargaining unit. Through our Office of University Counsel, we have informed the union of our decision to close ELI, and we will be working with the faculty members’ union representatives to determine how this will impact their employment. In addition, there is one staff member who will be impacted by the closure.”
The primary function of the ELI has been to provide non-credit intensive English training to speakers of other languages. These learners often come from overseas to improve their English while being surrounded by it in Pittsburgh. Students are generally here for a semester or a year, but they’ve also had arrangements with foreign colleges, such as Yasuda Women’s University in Japan, to have a group of students come to Pittsburgh for five or six weeks of English training. Tuition currently is $5,150 per term for full-time students and $1,030 part-time per course.
But Kiesling pointed out that the ELI also supports English language testing and teaches English as a second language for degree-seeking students and to international teaching assistants. The institute also has partnered with other schools, such as the Swanson School of Engineering and the School for Computing and Information, to teach specialized English classes related to each field.
Additionally, it helps support the linguistics department’s mission to train new instructors in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), and provides a laboratory for research on language acquisition.
Much of that work will fall back to the linguistics department, but Kiesling said, “Those are things that we do not have the capacity to do without the ELI faculty in our department.”
A new on-ramp program with the Office of Admission and Financial Aid, to help student with marginal English skills get help before the school term begins, was supposed to start this summer, but Kiesling doesn’t know what will happen with that.
What comes next?
Kiesling said he has appealed the decision to Provost Ann Cudd and has a meeting scheduled with her later in January. He also will meet with Dean Blee next week.
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 said in his letter to the provost he asked for another year to see if enrollment numbers come back to pre-pandemic levels.
“It's kind of hard to read the tea leaves and say one way or another whether it's dead as an industry. I don't think that's true,” he said. “But I think at least another year would have told us which way it would go, and we would have had some time to plan.”
He pointed out that the Dietrich School likely will have a new dean by this summer. Blee announced last year that she will step down this year, and a search process is ongoing. “Previously other units in the University or in the Dietrich School have had various decisions postponed because there's a new dean coming.”
Because most ELI students are here for one-time, one-year periods, and ELI will remain open through the spring term, Blee said none of the current students will be displaced.
Dawn McCormick, director of ELI and a teaching professor of linguistics, took her concerns about the closing to the Senate’s Educational Policies committee in December. She asked the committee what the process is for closing a program within a school.
McCormick said ELI is a source, albeit small, of students who end up in programs across the University. “We believe we are a University service and we provide University-wide needs,” so they are requesting University-wide and Dietrich-level conversations about ELI’s closure.
Senate President Robin Kear said there were issues related to the decision-making process about 10 years ago when the Dietrich School decided to end graduate programs in religious studies, German and classics. The decision ultimately went to the provost.
The English Language Institute is in a different situation because it deals mostly with non-degree-seeking students, but McCormick said she wants to see how the committee can consider the process of decision making in this and similar instances.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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