Thursday, March 26, 2009

Worse and Worser

Mostly I have tried to be rather optimistic about the Economic Crisis, including in an earlier post in which I proposed that departments and other academic units may be more likely to try to hold on to tenure-track faculty at this time, as these positions might otherwise go away and not come back. Sometimes, however, data get in the way of a perfectly good hypothesis; e.g. see this post by PZ Myers about the elimination of an entire science department at the University of Florida.

Unless there is some obscure political issue involved, it is difficult to understand the reasoning for eliminating a geoscience department, particularly at a time when the physical sciences are so central to so many global (and local) issues involving the environment: e.g., climate, water, resources/energy.

I am not proposing that some liberal arts department be eliminated instead. The intellectual health of a university depends on the arts and sciences.

But eliminate a science department? Who will teach the youth of Florida about their environment? Who will teach them about water and climate and land and life and how they all interact? Who will teach them about volcano monitoring?

I am very sorry for the scientists and others losing their jobs in this department, and I'm sorry that there is a university that couldn't find a better way to deal with the economic crisis than get rid of a very relevant science department.


Mister Troll said...

(I noticed PZ Myers didn't mention that the University was also cutting the Depts. of Religion and Communication.)

Once upon a time I was at a University that proposed eliminating the Geology department. Outrage! Uproar! I, too, was shocked, but the administration argued that other universities in the statewide system could still teach geology majors. This may or may not be an entirely compelling point, but it is worth noting that we're not talking about a *statewide* elimination of the geology department. Is it not reasonable for state schools to specialize, or should every campus carry all departments?

At another university, I witnessed the "elimination" of the geology department. The end result was a kind of environmental sciences program, which includes geology has a much broader viewpoint. This is not an entirely fair example as I don't believe any jobs were cut, but it's worth noting that elimination is not always *elimination*.

I've tried to learn more about the UF plan, but unfortunately did not succeed.

In any case like this, the devil is the details. Will other universities continue the geology program? Are there overlapping enviro-geo-sciences programs at UFG? What happens to introductory non-major geology courses? What's the enrollment in the current program?

Without more info, I personally don't (yet) feel any particular objection.

Anonymous said...

I echo your sentiments. What a sad situation for the University of Florida.

But I have to wonder about PZ Myers' claim that "we're also about to be confronted by the result of a decade of neglect of the nation's infrastructure, in particular, the chronic starvation of our universities."

Really? "Decade of neglect"? Compared to when? Just because state schools' total budgets have relied less on state budget line items and more on endowments and other sources does not mean budgets have gone down over the last decade. (It certainly seems like they are going down now, though).

Also, in the absence of clear proposals for other means to accomplish a 10% budget cut at UF, it's hard to muster up much more than a generalized sense of sorrow. What is the best thing to do here? "NOT cut the geosciences department and complain about the people who want to" is not really an answer.

Anonymous said...

1. It's a worst case scenario, not a fact "The University of Florida's largest college would need to lay off 66 faculty and staff members, eliminate one department and cut another two departments in half under a worst-case budget scenario described Wednesday by the college's dean. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Paul D'Anieri said the college faces such cutbacks if a 10 percent, or about $9 million, budget cut comes to pass..."Until something actually gets enacted, no one has to panic," D'Anieri said."

UF officials have asked colleges to plan for that level of cuts as the high end of possibilities if state lawmakers slash higher education funding."

2. If you propose cutting "unpopular" Departments, no one gets the message.

Mark P

cookingwithsolvents said...

Wow, just wow.

John Vidale said...

I'm not sure it is difficult to understand why Florida is cutting a department. The money is not there and the tenure system does not allow the firing of individual faculty to save money.

So I blame the tenure system. We've built a system in which the money is so encumbered that a 10% cut requires dismembering a college of sciences. A business in a similar bind would be considered very poorly run.

Tom said...

I recently blogged myself about the Arizona State school system planning to drop the Department of Clinical Laboratory Science. This cut comes when there is a HUGE demand for clinical laboratory scientists (there is a n average 10.4% vacancy rate for CLS/MT positions in hospitals across the country). The American Society of Clinical Pathologists (which board certifies CLS graduates) started a campaign to put pressure on ASU to reconsider. ASU doesn't seem to care though, which is a shame.

Anonymous said...

I'm a geologist. The department in which I now teach is a biology department that offers some geology and some geography. It used to have a big geology department that was cut (I think in the 80s). They decided upon geology when picking which department because all the geologists where within a few years of retirement.

There is a "main" campus and probably 4 or 5 other major campuses in the state with strong geology backgrounds. But even at the liberal arts college end of the system it seems there is a demand for learning about the earth.

Who is left to teach all the students about the Earth? And more importantly my university has found: who is left to fill the preservice teachers' needs for geology in the curriculum.

For the past two years it has been someone different each semester. This year and next year it is me -- an overworked, underpaid, part time adjunct instructor who by the skin of her teeth finished her phd last semester. Luckily the location is good for me (I didn't have to move), PT is good for me because I have young kids who like me to be home, but without those perks I'm not sure I'd recommend this job to anyone.

Laura E. Mariani said...

UF is also considering drastic cuts to their education and nursing programs. It's not just the "who cares?" subjects (not that I'm implying that we shouldn't care about geology, but I think the general public can appreciate the need for teachers and nurses better than geologists). I blogged about this here:

Anonymous said...

My major problem with UF is that despite all these department cuts, they are still dumping huge amounts of money on their football team & facilities.

Such priorities are bewildering...

Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

State funding cuts were becoming an issue when I entered College (a little over a decade ago), since that time, tuition has increased 500% at my alma mater. There is going to come a time when education will be unaffordable, which will make schools obsolete and they will lose even more funding - they're cutting off their nose to spite the face.

Female Science Professor said...

Mister Troll has a good point. In my limited amount of looking for information, I didn't find information about a plan for an environmental science department that incorporated geology, but that would be a better outcome than simply eliminating earth science.

Mickey Schafer said...

So, I'll probably get burned by noting this publicly, but having guided several geology students a few years back through their thesis work, one of the things I noticed was that they were ALL women. At a local museum event for kids sponsored by the geology dept, the majority of masters students represented were women. The colleges of education and nursing are dominated by young women. Fortunately, outcry seems to have moderated the likelihood that education and nursing will cut their undergrad programs (how can the so-called flagship university of the state not provide teachers and health professionals?). Hopefully the same tactic will work for geology. I think it would be politically disastrous to go after a more obvious target such as "women's studies" -- but it seems entirely likely that those politics are at play nonetheless.

Kevin said...

The University of California is also looking at 10% cuts, and has already passed 10% fee increase.

I've not heard of any plans to eliminate departments, though, as that is using a club, rather than a scalpel, to do surgery on the budget.

Yudoff has started hacking away at the decades of bloat in the administration, but (unlike many college presidents) he did not take a symbolic 10% pay cut himself, even though he is compensated at a very high level and could easily afford the gesture.

Anonymous said...

I experienced a similar event at UNH in the mid 1990s when they eliminated the Entomology Department (admittedly a small department, and without the elimination of jobs since we were dispersed throughout other departments).

P.Z. Myers definitely got one thing right ... the anti-intellectualism of many politicians. This quote from former Gov. Judd Gregg of NH (Yes! That Judd Gregg), illustrates the problem.

"They've got to explain to me why a faculty person teaching 12 hours a week for seven month a year should get a pay raise of 6 percent while the AFDC mothers
won't get that much." (Boston Sunday Globe, Dec. 23, 1990)

Presumably then Gov., and now Sen., Gregg has a college degree, so he must know better. Therefore it can only be assumed that he was lying for purely political reasons. He isn't the only politician I have heard make similar statements. I recall one in Texas that made an almost identical statement about the Texas A&M budget in the late 1970s.

Without politicians who value education to make the decisions, we can only expect further deterioration of our budgets.

Tom said...

The colleges of education and nursing are dominated by young women. Fortunately, outcry seems to have moderated the likelihood that education and nursing will cut their undergrad programs.

In my local community, the state university here charges undergraduates admitted into the nursing program ... DOUBLE the tuition. Same education, double the tuition.

It's a cash cow. Of course they won't cut it, and it's not for PR purposes.

Anonymous said...

Curt F: the states have neglected the university system for at least the last decade. Getting more funds from grants is not an ideal solution because it means senior faculty are spending increasingly more time applying for grants instead of doing their research. And those of us in the humanities, who have very little access to grant funds, simply live with higher teaching loads, larger classes, and lower salaries. At my university, science profs start at double my salary, and have a lower teaching load. Furthermore, universities have had to rely increasingly on adjunct instructors, who receive lousy pay and little or no benefits. Look up info at the AAUP on this trend -- it's scary.
John: dismantling the tenure system is no solution. A democratic society can only flourish when there are intellectuals who have protection of their academic freedom, and who have stable jobs that allow them to do the kind of intensive, long-term research they need to do. If professors functioned as most other employees, being hired and fired at will, they would not have the stability they need to establish comprehensive research programs that may turn out results very slowly and that are not directed by immediate market forces. We need the freedom to focus on topics that don't promise some economic pay-off, and the freedom to launch into work that may take years to develop. The public benefits from this, and the public needs to understand that it's expensive.

Average Professor said...

Honestly, in a serious budget crunch, isn't it a better idea to eliminate an entire department and preserve the others at their current level than it is to cut into every department? Students can still get geology somewhere (another state school, perhaps) so it's not like you are eliminating geology as a discipline.

It still stinks to cut out a whole department, but I think it stinks less then doing even more cutting into every department (many of whom may already be about as lean as they can get).

But then, my own important and high-impact discipline only exists as a department at about 40 schools nationwide, so I'm not part of a culture of every university having my department to begin with.

Anonymous said...

A story from Germany:

When the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was governor in Lower Saxony, he decided to kill two entire departments at the University of Hildesheim. He chose that useless department of Computer Science and that department of strangeness, Business Mathematics.

There war uproar, but Money Had To Be Saved, so the tenured people were ordered to go teach at other universities in the state and the rest were fired. In all, staff was cut by 25% - and then it was discovered that a lot of external research money went away as well.

The university took the government to court and eventually won - but that took years. As they started ramping up the CS department again, the federal government (under Gerhard Schröder) had to pass legislation giving "Green Cards" to foreign national IT people, as Germany was suffering from quite a shortage in that area.....

Anonymous said...

amy: Let me play devil's advocate for a moment.

1. You have made the case that lower state funding for universities and increased reliance on grant money is bad for you. Why is it bad for society?

2. Do you have any evidence that "A democratic society can only flourish when there are intellectuals who have protection of their academic freedom, and who have stable jobs that allow them to do the kind of intensive, long-term research they need to do." Some of history's greatest intellectuals did great work despite not enjoying stable jobs with academic freedom. For example, Einstein at the Swiss patent office, or Ben Franklin for his whole life. Probably, some quantity of academically secure jobs is good for society. But how do we know if we have too few, just enough, or too many?

3. Let's suppose that we have good, solid evidence that current university funding levels are insufficient for maximizing utility to society. Nonetheless, the Florida legislature votes to cut UF's budget by 10% anyway. What is the best response by UF administration?

Anonymous said...

Curt Fischer: thanks for the helpful comments. Here are my thoughts:

1) I’m trying to provide evidence that reduced funding is bad for society, not just for me. Larger class sizes, more adjuncts, and less favorable working conditions lead to lower quality teaching. I’ve got 90 students in my “writing-intensive” courses this semester. It’s a joke -- I can’t give them the one-on-one attention they need to improve their writing (I’m not whining about my work load, but pointing out the very real effects on students). Many talented people just leave the academic world for better working conditions elsewhere. Furthermore, less research support means less research being turned out. Time spent applying for grants could be spent doing research that might be good for society.

2) The evidence comes from the enormous benefits industrialized nations have received from having an intellectual class that is well-supported. Incredible amounts of important research have been produced by academics, and there’s good reason to think such research would not have been funded by private enterprise alone. Furthermore, societies that have put onerous restrictions on their intellectual class (the Soviet Union, etc.) have suffered greatly for it. The fact that some individuals have turned out good research without the benefits of academic tenure doesn’t mean that society as a whole would do well by having all physicists working in the equivalent of patent offices. However, your final question is much tougher to answer. How much should society support academia? Perhaps a reduction in support is just what we need. Here I can only point to our decline in general literacy and technological competitiveness as evidence that we haven’t put enough resources into education. But I realize that there are other causes for this decline.

3) Good question, and I don’t know how to answer it. I do think, however, that all universities should make sure the cuts are recognized and felt by the public. Furloughs should be taken during teaching days as well as research days, not only taken during our vacations. Larger class sizes should be pointed out to the students.

Carrie said...

I attended a small, state university that essentially had no physics department. There were two physics professors that made up the whole department. I'm sure this decision was made because there weren't many (if any) physics majors. However, the very strong Engineering, Oceanography, & Natural Resources majors all needed to take physics, and needed a good solid background in the subject for their majors. My point being that even though there are options around the state for other geology majors, the students in other majors at the campus without a geology dept. are going to be missing out as well.

Curt Fischer said...

amy: Thanks for your replies. Very interesting food for thought, especially in your answer to #3. I had not thought about the problem that way before.

Unknown said...

I can give everyone an insiders viewpoint. (1) regarding the importance of geology to the state of Florida, one should go here

(2) Regarding the need for educators and nurses over geologists we might quibble, but UF reversed its initial decision to cut out these undergraduate programs.

(3) The Department at Florida state is considering cutting their department. That's the two big state universities committing suicide and

(4) The budget cuts can be made without decimating geology, religion and CS&D.

Stay tuned. Thanks for caring.


Joe Meert