IELP is a program designed to help international and other non-English speaking students learn English is being cut due to declining enrollment. Sergio Cervantes/PSU Vanguard

English language programs to be cut

Programs considered essential to international students will be removed

The Faculty of Portland State’s Intensive English Language Program (IELP) received an email on Feb. 12 asking them to attend an emergency Zoom meeting. During this meeting, Interim Provost Shelly Chabon informed them that all 12 of IELP’s faculty members would be laid off and the program would be cut at the end of the academic year due to declining enrollment. 


The IELP—an almost 60-year-old program designed to help international and other non-English speaking students learn English—currently has only 30 students enrolled. According to PSU President Ann Cudd, enrollment for this program has been declining steadily since 2015, causing the program to become unsustainable. 


During a June 3 Faculty Senate meeting, the majority of Faculty Senators urged a “no” vote against Cudd’s decision to eliminate the IELP and provided comments. Several commenters cited a rushed process for the decision to eliminate the program. Other Senators who commented urged others to vote no as well. They cited the immense benefit of IELPnot just for international students, but also the broader PSU community. 


Many also cited realistic alternatives to full elimination, steps that could prolong the program while a more definitive analysis of concerns about the program are addressed. No faculty senators spoke in support of the elimination of the program. 


Six senators voted to eliminate the program, 31 voted against its elimination and 12 abstained. However, the vote ultimately does little to impact the decision and acts more as a ceremonial gesture.


“We value our international students greatly,” said Cudd during a March 1 press conference. “They add diversity. They add… different kinds of cultural backgrounds. And it’s just great to have students from all over the world. We’ll continue to support those students. We’ll continue to embrace them and hope that they continue to come. It is unfortunate that the numbers are dropping, but that’s really not our intention.”


In lieu of the IELP, Cudd said they will be seeking off-campus resources to support international and non-English speaking students. These students will potentially be rerouted to different colleges or programs in Portland which can offer them the same support. 


“Learning English is certainly an important thing, and we want to help support our students in that,” Cudd said. “We’re going to have to find resources off campus to help our students… who need that to access the support. But we’re very dedicated [and] committed to finding ways to help our students who need support in the English language to get it here in Portland.”


An anonymous email received by PSU Vanguard from someone claiming to be a PSU alum and former IELP faculty member described the decision to cut the IELP as shortsighted and appalling. 


“I am very dismayed at this demonstrated lack of investment in and lack of commitment to PSU’s international student population, domestic student population, instructional staff and its image as a globally-minded institution,” the email stated. “PSU students, faculty and staff deserve forward-thinking leadership, not whatever austerity-minded ‘rational economics’ garbage is driving this move.”


During the March press conference, Cudd referenced an announcement during a winter strategic planning meeting which said PSU now qualifies as a majority BIPOC-serving institution. While Cudd says she values diversity on campus, some students find the decision to cut the IELP to contradict this sentiment. 


In an open letter sent to PSU Vanguard on March 31, PSU post-bacc student Charissa Yang described the cuts to the IELP as self-defeating and hypocritical considering the university’s publicly elevated commitments to diversity and antiracism. 


“PSU is claiming it is doing more in the realm of antiracism and supporting diversity while it is simultaneously killing off so many programs that were already effective in supporting the culturally diverse and international community,” Yang stated. “Instead, it would not only make more sense to retain these programs in order to bolster these diversity goals, but in contrast, it would demonstrate a shameful lack of integrity to dismantle these long-standing programs, ignoring the further impacts of their effects here and long term for the students and community impacted.” 


Gwen Heller Tuason—PSU alum and IELP faculty member since 2005—explained that international enrollment around the country began to decline around 10 years ago. Nearly 600 students enrolled in the program at its peak.


“Enrollment has changed over the years for the entire country and there are multiple reasons for that,” Tuason said. “Some of them are political, some of them are economic. Some of them have to do with issues like safety and the perception of safe cities in the [United States]. The increase in gun violence has also impacted our enrollment. So, there’s many reasons for [declining enrollment.]”


In the press conference, Cudd said that the low enrollment made the program financially unsustainable for the university. “We’ve tried making it more sustainable a couple of different times in the last nine years,” she said. “And we’ve also injected additional investments into it in order to try to beef up its enrollment and its ability to sustain itself. But instead it has just become less and less sustainable.”


In the last few years—especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic—Tuason said IELP enrollment bottomed out. If given the opportunity and additional resources, she said the program could have returned from the decline it saw during the pandemic.


“If we had the right systems in place to recruit for our program, we would have had a chance of keeping the program going,” Tuason said. “Likely with some reductions in the size of faculty, but not completely eliminating the program. We had hoped that that would happen. But the university, from my point of view, has chosen not to put those resources in place. That this is not something that happened overnight.”


Hika Hukita—Master of Social Work student and employee at the International Student Office—said she feels frustrated about the cuts to the program, since English language help is much needed. She explained how students unaffiliated with the program do not know about the cuts, and it is even unclear for prospective students whether or not the program would be available to them.


“I received a few calls from some students thinking about coming to PSU, like international students, asking about the program,” Hukita said. “I had to tell them that we’re not accepting [new applicants] but that they’re looking for some alternatives. But I don’t have any information that I can give them. So it’s very frustrating and I feel the administrators… need to have alternative plans.”


Cudd indicated at the March press conference that the administration is developing alternative plans for the IELP, such as working with outside institutions such as Portland Community College (PCC). However, Hukita said commuting to an off-campus location may be difficult for international students. 


“Most of the international students at PSU, including myself, do not have a car, and that commute is what we generally consider when deciding a place to live,” Hukita said. “Also, many of us have a hard time finding a place that we can actually make a contract with, since normally we do not have credit scores that we can show to a landlord. Even students are admitted to PSU on condition of additional language classes before transitioning to the degree-related program. If the language programs take place off campus, such as PCC, commuting can be extremely challenging—with no cars but just buses—as well as the decision of where to live.”


Additionally, Hukita explained how many international students with children consider the school district when deciding where to live. A lot of them wind up in suburban areas, such as Hillsboro, which would make an additional commute to PCC exceptionally difficult. 


According to Tuason, international students pay out-of-state tuition—the highest possible tuition rate at PSU. By cutting the IELP, the university will lose out on this money. The reason for shutting down the IELP was said to be budget cuts and Hukita said this reasoning feels off and she doesn’t understand the administration’s rationale, since PSU will be losing money once the program is cut. 


I feel kind of sad about PSU becoming less PSU,” Hukita said. “The president is saying that PSU is very diverse and she would like to make the campus more supportive for minority students, but what she is doing, actually, is very contradictory to what she’s saying she’s going to do. So, they’re very confused and they’re very frustrated, and I feel frustrated about the contradiction, as well.”