Department of Geological Sciences, University of Florida
You can also hear Mike describing what happened in the American Geosciences Institute's webinar on Strategies for Departmental Survival and Viability During Economic Downturns . At this webinar, Mike joined Geoffrey Feiss (retired Provost, College of William and Mary) and Michael Loudin (Manager, Global Geoscience Recruiting & Development, ExxonMobil) in offering their perspectives, followed by a community discussion.
The Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Florida is about what you'd expect – or perhaps better – for a geoscience department at a major research university. They have 17 tenured or tenure track faculty; 4 non-tenured faculty members (all of whom have Ph.D.s), who are responsible for the department's research laboratories; and 2 lecturers. In addition, they have 5 affiliate professors at the Florida Museum of Natural History, whose students also earn degrees through the department. They are a collegial faculty, and most of them serve on high-profile faculty committees and editorial boards. They have state-of-the-art research facilities, including $2 million in research lab renovations in 2000. These internationally recognized geoscientists have earned the following awards and recognition:
- 95% of the faculty are currently funded; they have $7 million in active grants
- 2 are members of the National Academy
- 2 are Distinguished Professors at the University of Florida
- 3 are Term Professors in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences this year; there are only 11 Term Professors in the College for 2009-2010
- Over the past 6 years, 5 faculty members have been selected as University Research Foundation Professors: "faculty members who have a distinguished current record of research and a strong research agenda likely to lead to continuing distinction in their fields"
The department currently has 44 graduate students, 30 of whom are pursuing Ph.D.s. At the undergraduate level, their general education classes are remarkably popular, with over one third of all undergraduate students enrolling in a Geology course during their years of study at the University of Florida.
The Situation: Budget Cuts Lead to Proposed Elimination
During fiscal year 2007-2008, the University of Florida continued a history of budget cuts with another round, aiming for approximately 10% cuts across the board. In the fall of 2008, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences hired a new dean, who had no previous experience as either a dean or a department chair. In fiscal year 2008-2009, the University was facing an additional 10% budget cut, prompting discussion of eliminating weak departments. The Dean decided to cut three departments: one each in humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
After discussing how Geological Sciences was going to cut their budget by 10% in early March of 2009, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences informed the department chair that Geological Sciences was one of the three departments slated for virtual elimination in late March. He proposed that the department:
- Fire all non-tenured faculty and staff (leaving just 8 Full and Associate Professors)
- Eliminate the undergraduate major (in spite of the high number of students enrolled in the department's general education courses)
- The department had about 50 undergraduate majors, and their numbers had been growing
- Focus on its graduate program and research (disregarding the fact that the faculty members responsible for running the research laboratories would have been fired)
The Dean's reasoning was simple:
- He thought it would have the least "ripple effect": there would be few students and parents to complain
- Geological Sciences has a small number of undergraduate majors (relative to Sociology and Psychology, or even Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, for example)
- In his view, the department was not producing enough Ph.D.s
- He didn't value the Master's students, in spite of the fact that a Master's degree is excellent preparation for many careers in geoscience industry
- The department has a relatively large proportion of untenured faculty and staff, representing a savings of $2 million in salary
The Chair of the Department, Mike Perfit, attributes this proposal to two underlying problems: a fundamental lack of understanding and appreciation of the importance of the Geological Sciences on campus, and a new Dean with minimal previous interactions with science departments and little administrative experience.
The Department's Response
The department's response to the proposed changes was immediate and broad-based, including faculty, colleagues, students, and alumni. (Editor's note: the department was able to reach their alumni immediately because they regularly send a departmental newsletter to their alums.) Here are the strategies they think have been most effective:
- Educated the Dean: compiled fact sheets about the department, faculty, research, and student successes (i.e., jobs)
- Explained the importance of their MS program for providing the workforce with geologists who can go on to get a Professional Geologist license to practice in Florida
- Stressed collaborations at the University of Florida and beyond; got letters, emails, and phone calls of support
- Supporters included people who knew state Senators and Trustees, researchers at high-powered institutions
- Initiated a letter writing campaign to the Dean, Provost, and President, including support from AGI and Exxon Mobil
- Held meetings with Dean, Provost, and supporters
- Provided the metrics comparing the Department of Geological Sciences to other departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences:
- Teaching productivity (Student Credit Hours, both absolute values and per FTE), for both undergraduate and graduate students
- Revenue generated by teaching (both absolute values and per FTE)
- Research revenue generated (both absolute values and per FTE)
- Cost per credit hour (undergraduate and graduate)
- Interdisciplinary projects: collaborations on campus with Anthropology, Biological Sciences, the Brain Institute, Chemistry, Environmental Engineering, Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, the Florida Museum of Natural History, the School of Forestry and Conservation, Forensic Sciences, Geography, Microbiology and Cell Science, Nuclear and Radiological Engineering, the School of Natural Resources and Sciences, Soil and Water Sciences, the Water Institute, and Zoology
- Note: the department essentially houses the analytical facilities for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – a fact the Dean failed to consider when he calculated the "ripple effect" of eliminating the department
- Focused on Environmental and Climate research and its importance to the state
At the May faculty senate meeting, the President of the University decided not to eliminate the department. With fiscal year 2009-2010 comes a tuition increase and federal stimulus money, leading to a new faculty line in Climate Change and a 30% increase in the department's budget for operating expenses. At this point, the University is using federal stimulus money to pay all of the department's salaries. This does leave the question of where the department will be when the stimulus money is spent.
While the department is no longer slated for elimination, they do not see their future as guaranteed, either. To continue to strengthen their position within the institution, they plan the following changes:
- Developing a clear vision and image for the department
- Continuing to educate the institution and its administration
- Increased advertising of the department and major: making a concerted effort to market their "products"
- Increased collaborations around UF
- Greater visibility via outreach and communication
- Created external Advisory Committee to provide input and political support
- Planning joint B.A. with Geography in Environmental Geosciences
- Expanded B.A. course options and flexibility
- New faculty hire in Climate and Global Change
- Increased emphasis on the Ph.D. program, particularly efforts to recruit the best students.
- Working to get Earth Science into high school curricula
- Communicating to the media: what we do, why the geological sciences are important
- Garnering support from industry and government agencies
- Working to foster relationships with large, powerful companies that are willing to speak in support of the Geological Sciences
- Recognizing the need to communicate with political leaders