Geologic Column
The Department You Save May Be Your Own: Part I
Lisa Rossbacher and Dallas Rhodes

Academic disciplines function in one of two worlds. These worlds are as different from each other as the “two cultures” that C.P. Snow first described in his 1959 lecture and book. The “two polar groups” that Snow cited were divided by a “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” and the same is true for the two academic cultures.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the two cultures of higher education are those disciplines that have a virtually unquestioned right to exist and those with an uncertain future.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
The “first culture,” those programs whose right to exist is never questioned, currently includes departments such as English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, political science and history. No matter how badly the people in these programs behave, no matter how poorly they perform, no matter how much they cost, no matter how little they produce, the program (though not necessarily every individual) will survive.

The “second culture” includes the departments that academic administrators tend to regard as being too expensive, too low in “return on investment,” too small, too hard to defend, or simply too much trouble to continue supporting. These departments don’t have enough value — by whatever definition of “value” is operative — to keep around. Examples of these “second culture” disciplines include classical studies, modern languages other than Spanish, art, music, physics (sometimes), geography — and geology.

Like other disciplines in the second culture, geology programs are gradually becoming restricted to those institutions with the resources capable of supporting low-enrollment programs. Nowhere is this more obvious than among liberal arts colleges.

Using the current rankings from U.S. News and World Report, 53 percent of the top two tiers of colleges offer some program in the geosciences. Only 18 percent of the liberal arts colleges in the third tier and only 13 percent of those in the fourth tier have programs. The difference is profound even within the top group. Of the top 50 liberal arts colleges, 76 percent provide access to geology programs. In the next group of 50 colleges, the geosciences can be found in only 34 percent.

Understanding the implications

Geoscientists need to understand the implications of the two academic cultures. The current budget-cutting frenzy gripping virtually every state — and therefore all state-supported institutions of higher education — is cause for deep concern. The impact of budget problems on “second culture” programs over the last several years has been all too predictable.

Geology departments are under siege again. A recent example is the announcement by the University of Connecticut’s provost of plans to close its Department of Geology and Geophysics (see Geotimes, March 2004). Connecticut’s department joins others that have been eliminated over the past 10 years for reasons usually publicly attributed to budget reductions.

Citing “budget problems” is equivalent to saying that geology isn’t valuable enough for us to continue investing in it. “Value” can have many meanings, including generating external funding (and recovered indirect costs), teaching a large number of student credit hours, contributing significantly to a core curriculum, providing visibility for the institution, having prominent alumni, or being publicly engaged in local and community issues. Other important characteristics in such institutional decisions are the geoscience faculty’s involvement in campus decision-making and their political astuteness.

Although the current wave of state budget cuts has raised the alarm about geoscience departments, the threat to departments is not new — nor is it limited to academic programs. In 1995, the U.S. Congress proposed elimination of the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

In the current budget climate, “value” is not simply being good at what you do; quality won’t save you. If you’re part of the “second culture,” being good isn’t good enough — but not being good will kill you.

You’ve gotta have a plan

Geology departments that want to survive can learn from the demise of others — and they can prevent a similar fate befalling them. The decision to eliminate a geology department never happens overnight, but by the time the plan is announced, it’s usually too late to change anything. Reaction almost never succeeds.

A rare example to the contrary was at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In October 1994, the provost proposed elimination of the Department of Geology and Geophysics. The ensuing protest from the scientific community resulted in a reversal of this decision just four days later; this may be the only example of an academic department that was saved after plans to close it had been announced.

To stay away from the budget-cutting block, departments must be proactive. Geology faculty and students can do a lot to save themselves by never allowing administrators to think they are expendable. Professional organizations have a key role to play, as well, in supporting the efforts of geoscience departments. In 1996, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) was working on defensive strategies to help departments when they were threatened; today, one action item to “support geoscience departments at risk of termination” is buried on page 13 of the Oct. 17, 2003, draft of NAGT’s strategic plan.

Waiting for outside help won’t work. Departments need their own plans to avoid being lost to budget reductions and perceived lack of value.

Next month, read the second part of “The department you save may be your own,” about specific actions that departments should take.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. Rhodes is professor and chair of the Department of Geology and Geography at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga.

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