Geoscience Departments at Risk

Cathryn A Manduca
Author Profile
published Feb 4, 2010
The current shortfall in state budgets is making this a challenging time for geoscience departments (check out David Steer's insightful article predicting this trauma last year in the NAGT e-news, the recent article in the Jan 1, Science: Recession Hits Some Sciences Hard at Florida State University). The Building Strong Geoscience Department's project has been working for several years to help departments strengthen their programming, their internal management, and the relationship to the institution. Their website is full of good ideas. However, now I'm starting to hear about departments who are doing all of these good things and are still under threat. If being really good at what we do isn't enough, what is our next step? Three things come to mind

  1. There is strength is size. It is more difficult to eliminate a large department than a small one. Geology departments are often loathe to join forces with geography departments and vice versa due to their dissimilarities. Similarly, geoscience has often held itself apart from environmental science. This attitude is not serving us well at this time. From the point of view of the rest of the world, we have more commonalities than differences with geography and environmental science. Geography is the bridge between geoscience and the impact of the earth on people. Traditionally, more than any other disciplines, we both use maps and spatial thinking to solve problems. The rest of the world is figuring out that this is a valuable thing to do. Similarly, long before we can convince the world of the value of geoscience they are going to be clamoring for environmental science (that is why there is an environmental science AP exam). As pressure increases, geoscience, geography and environmental science need to all be allies, not squabbling about whether or not one is more essential than the other. I would like to hear more from the departments that have tried joining forces with geography and environmental science - either formally or informally. What is lost and what is gained- in terms of science, education, and institutional commitment? The Science article about Florida State article makes a strong case for being proactive in finding your allies and joining forces early.
  2. Departments that are invaluable to the institution are not under threat. I was struck recently by the long held tenet that you are rewarded with tenure for your teaching and research, but not for your service to the institution. Perhaps we have been overlooking that service to the institution is rewarded not by individual promotion but in opportunities for the department as a whole. Service on institutional committees is one of the most important ways that the department has for helping the administration and other faculty understand the contributions it is making.

    We are all, however, replaceable on committees. How does a geoscience department as a whole make itself invaluable? Much of our value to the institution rest on teaching science to fulfill general education requirements. Others can do that--but what if we were doing something in that teaching that no one else was good at? Many have worked to make their intro classes really good, for lots of reasons: they recruit majors, they include future K-12 teachers, they develop the scientific literacy of the population as a whole. I applaud these efforts, and certainly this strengthens your departments utility to the institution. --But here is a wild idea for going further:

    On the radio a few weeks ago, there was a piece on the importance the state university system is placing on teaching students to be strong learners -- both life-long learners and learners who can succeed in the university. This is all about creating self-regulated learners by improving their metacognition] -- big words that geoscientists have been talking about in the On the Cutting Edge program. It turns out in the viewing area for this radio station, some of the leaders in teaching metacognition are geoscientists! So imagine a day when students sign up for Intro Geo not only to fulfill their science requirement but also because all of their friends tell them that this was the course where they learned how to be a successful student. Now I'm starting to feeling like I have an argument for an irreplaceable department. Sure, other faculty could learn to help students develop their ability to self-regulate their learning -- but the easiest place for the university to send faculty to learn about this would be to their geoscience department that was already known for success in this area --- so you wouldn't want to wipe that out :).

    A similar argument could be developed around other institutional goals. Your geoscience department could become the campus leader in teaching quantitative reasoning, writing, or critical thinking to general education students. But the point is the same, we need to be thinking about what we are doing that makes us invaluable to the institution, particularly in case the administration decides that developing a widespread understanding of the Earth in the student body isn't at the top of their list. Time is short (ask anyone who has experienced a closure threat -- they come up quickly). What are you already doing that serves your institutions core educational goals? Can you make a case that if you were eliminated that niche could not be easily filled by others? How can you get from where you are to such a place?
  3. There is a third thing that seems to makes geoscience departments safe - you can become independently wealthy through a strong endowment. If one and two are too hard, you could work here. But I'd definitely hedge my bets by making sure the department is pulling together as a team.

Building Strong Geoscience Departments homepage
Be sure to check out the Building Strong Geoscience Departments website for good ideas that will make your life better even if there is no threat of closure. The new section on Making a Case for Your Department has resources for helping the administration understand your value, as well as case stories from departments that have survived threats. That project, NAGT, and AGI have all contributed external letters in support of threatened departments. Do not hesitate to cry out if your department needs help.

Geoscience Departments at Risk --Discussion  

Here at Montana State, we are the Department of Earth Science, and from our inception (~60 years ago) we have been a combined geology and geography department. This was done originally for political reasons--there was a need to appear that this department would not duplicate the geology program already in place at our sister institution across the Great Divide (i.e. University of Montana in Missoula). In the long run, although born of expedience, this combined department has served us well. As Cathy writes, we have long addressed the human connection with Earth through our course offerings that cover a continuum from traditional geology, to human, historical, and cultural geography courses. Some of the particular strengths of our department lie at the interface of geology and geography: water in the Earth system (surface and groundwater), snow science (e.g. avalanche prediction), biogeography and climate change, natural resources (exploration, development, environmental impacts, impacts on community and economics). GIS is now a central part of the curriculum for all students--originally required of geography majors, we now require a 2-course sequence in GIS for our geology majors as well. Diversification of our student population has been a good and stabilizing factor. If enrollments are down on one side of the department, it is usally the case the enrollments are sustained on the other side--thus we never really have big fluctuations in enrollment that could result in administrative scrutiny. We have maintained over 100 majors in geology and 100 more in geography over many years. These students have degree options in geology, geohydrology, paleontology, snow science, geography and GIS/planning (core courses are required for either geology or geography majors, and these emphasis areas are addressed by upper division electives).

There are tensions that are real: there are definitely distinct cultures of geology and geography; different professional expectations. This is particularly evident in making promotion and tenure decisionsn (what accounts for new scholarship, how is this measured?). It's a little odd to have a crystallographer/mineralogist/metamorphic petrologist (me) under the same roof with a (valued) colleague who writes books about the historical development of frontier communities. Although there are real opportunities for cross-disciplinary teaching and research, it is all-too-easy for stove-piping to occur--it is possible to just do your own thing and not integrate with the larger department.

To make this all work, it's important to keep communications open about needs and expectations in the diverse departmental pursuits, and also, to respect the contributions made to teaching and research in all quarters.


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Cultivating a loyal and vocal alumni group is another strategy. Private colleges in particular are sensitive to the concerns of their alumni and would hesitate to abolish a department whose alumni would be sure to raise a loud stink. Neither my alma maters nor my current department is particularly good at this, but my husband's undergrad department, the geology department at St. Lawrence University, is spectacular in this regard. They have geology reunions, a newsletter which is interesting to read, geo-specific alumni fundraising, and ongoing informal communications with and among grads. Last year they contrived to give a high visibility award, an honorary degree, to four geology department alums for work on global climate change, reminding everyone at graduation from the president on down about the importance of geosciences for humanity and the excellence of the college's own geo department.


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Carleton's department (as Cathy knows!) is a great example of a geology department with strong alumni connections. (However, I know of one small liberal arts college that will remained unnamed, but where I do not teach any more, which does not allow individual departments to contact alums directly.)

I hope that the industries who employ geologists recognize the importance of Cathy's third point. They need future geologists, and we academics need them to support us financially, so we can convince administrators that our departments are needed.


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Three years ago, I established our departmental "Enhancement Committee", consisting of alums and friends of the Department. It was clear that any capital campaign by the administration would add dollars to the general fund, but that the general fund money did basically nothing to help with tactical or strategic efforts at the departmental level.

Prior to establishment of the committee, we were also "told" that we couldn't contact donors or companies directly. We made a strong power play with influential alumni to our Foundation to make the case that the Department needed to have a different model for fund raising.

We have increased donations every year since establishment of the committee. Its membership now is close to 40 individuals. We hold two business meetings a year (one in association with homecoming in the fall, and with reunion and/or commencement in the spring). In virtually every case, the people we have asked to serve have been humbled by the request, and they have all been active on our behalf. If you don't ask, you will not get.

Let me know if I can answer any questions for you. I know others have also set up similar committees (Jay Gregg at OSU comes to mind).

Fortunately for us, Earth science and Earth engineering disciplines are highly valued at my institution, so we're not an "at risk" program. However, with the erosion of state support for higher education in Colorado, we are faced with extremely challenging economic realities (like most all of us). Take some initiative to involve your alums and let them know what you're up against.

Good luck!

John Humphrey
Head, Geology & Geological Engineering
Colorado School of Mines


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I want to echo a couple of the items mentioned in above posts from the perspective of a Florida department (Univ. South Florida), which has had to address a lot of this for a good bit longer than the nation as a whole:

1) General Education matters a lot. It can produce credit hours in bunches and makes a "small" geology department look much bigger than its faculty numbers. At USF we've seen that there are student "markets" for general education science courses delivered in a variety of modes - large-section lecture, small-section lecture, blended web-lecture, and web-only - and that the tastes of the "market" vary over time. We currently offer live and Web-based versions of our general education offerings, and both "sell" well, albeit to different audiences. It's clear from our experiences that new majors only come out of the live offerings - preferably small-section live offerings, so you need to make sure not to lose these.

A second item regarding General Education - geology courses can fill both Physical/Earth Science and Life Science requirements. It's worthwhile fighting with one's General Education Committee about this - and a good reason to have someone on that committee, unpleasant though the task can be.

2) There are several different avenues toward making your department seem "bigger" and therefore less vulnerable to budget cut issues. At USF all the sciences and our Math department have banded together to form a School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics within our College of Arts and Sciences, as part of a budget-motivated overall reorganization of the institution. Geology is the smallest of the participating departments, but we're integrated into all of the Research Clusters that define the school's organization and its hiring priorities. Even with this arrangement, we maintain active connections to our Civil Engineering and Geography departments on matters of shared interest, and even with our Anthropology department (around the research use of LIDAR technologies, which are supported as a College Core Facility). The more entangled a department is in its institution, the less expendable it looks.

3) Not only are good alumni connections a potential source of funds - they're also showy, and noisy. We have a very active Geology Alumni Society at USF that conducts a full program of events aimed at keeping our Department and especially our students connected to the Florida professional geoscience community, and who meet independently with our Dean and Provost on matters of community concern and interest. Their program of events includes an annual charitable banquet to which they routinely invite our Dean and our Provost (and one or the other of them generally attends). As our alumni work largely in the environmental consulting industry, they don't have the deep pockets of oil-patch alums, but our upper administration folks know our Alumni Society officers as well, if not better, than they know us in the Department. They keep us on the University's viewscreen, and that matters.


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I recently retired after 14 years as Chair of my department. In the mid-1990s we were limping along with 30 undergraduate majors, 25-30 graduate students, and 14 faculty members. We weren't perceived as weak by our university, but the State Board of Higher Education was raising questions about whether or not we were expendable. The things that saved us then were our centrality and low costs per credit-hour--we produced a huge number of general education credit-hours. We also had a loyal alumni and better scholarship endowments than many departments here. However, we realized that the State and our own institution and colleagues did not fully appreciate or understand who we were and what we did. We consciously made several changes that fall under one or another of the general strategies previously mentioned.
Administrators, other faculty, and students did not appreciate our centrality to the environmental sciences, so we changed our name from "Geology" to "Geology and Environmental Geosciences." It made a difference! We saw students who were interested in the environment or earth science teaching as untapped recruits, so we added teacher certification and changed our undergraduate program to embrace three separate tracks: (1) geology, (2) environmental geosciences, and (3) earth science education. The environmental geosciences track mandates a secondary emphasis in another environmentally relevant department. We created a second field camp, environmental geosciences field camp, for those majors. We still have 14 faculty members, but we now have 100 or more undergraduate majors, with all tracks contributing strong numbers. Graduate student numbers have increased to near 50. (We're also over-worked!!)
One thing that represents high value to the university, but was not mentioned above, is external funding. With increased aggressiveness and some excellent new hires, we increased our average annual external funding to a level that places our department well within the top five departments in the university. Another thing that represents high value to the institution is research visibility in the media. With some of our faculty playing key roles in high profile "big-science" programs in Antarctica and elsewhere, we receive lots of media play which the university loves to show to potential donors, alumni, and potential students. If you are the lead spot on the university's capital campaign video, you are probably not at risk!
Finally, one of the things that endears us to our administration is something we do not do. We do not engage in divisive battles and bring those political imbroglios to the dean's doorstep. Several departments, even some sciences, do so and much to their own detriment. Our cohesiveness plays well with both the dean and students and makes it easier to be productive.
Jonathan Berg
Professor Emeritus
Northern Illinois University


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