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Geologic Column
A Discount Department Store University
Nicholas H. Tibbs

At Southeast Missouri State University (Southeast), the geosciences department and its degree programs closed their doors last month. Effective May 31, the department closure occurred under a state of financial emergency declared by the faculty senate in 2003, as requested by the administration. Although the financial situation was severe during this financial emergency, annual raises were granted, travel was not curtailed, and hiring continued throughout the school.

During the events culminating in program elimination, we learned several lessons, but it was too late to prevent our destruction. The short-term financial decision not only adversely affected Southeast, but also is symptomatic of a broader pattern of program discontinuance in higher education that apparently is proceeding without due consideration of regional and national needs.

A strategy of the Southeast administration was to “divide and conquer.” They limited the initial review to those 18 departments with fewer than 30 majors; we had 29 that year. When it became apparent that most programs would not be affected by this review, most faculty members and their senators did not speak up. Of the 18 reviewed departments, only sociology, geography and geoscience were eliminated. The sociology and geography programs had very few majors, and those disciplines are now housed elsewhere. All other programs survived, but many were downsized by one or two faculty.

The conventional wisdom, expressed in Geotimes and elsewhere, is that programs of high quality with productive faculty of strong reputation, providing graduates in a critical field as defined by the state, and having strong placement of graduates in discipline-related positions and graduate schools would do well in such a review. Our program met these parameters. Moreover, ours is the only geoscience program in a public university in the eastern half of Missouri, the nearest program being the excellent one at the University of Missouri-Rolla. So what went wrong?

The most important observation I can share with faculty in other potentially targeted programs is that these quality factors were of little or no importance in the assessment resulting in the decision to close our department. Apparently, the most important factor was the cost per major — determined by subtracting the cost of teaching our service courses from the total cost of the department. The fact that all active members of our faculty at the time of the review were full professors skewed the cost analysis unfavorably. Many departments would fare poorly in a review based on such a shortsighted financial analysis. The concept that cost per graduate is a more important consideration than the outcomes for graduates and the subsequent benefits to society is a hallmark of a university that is being “run like a business.” (I frequently refer to it as the discount department store model.)

The second most important lesson I can share is that targeted programs need active, highly visible and successful recruitment of majors off campus. We were reasonably strong in our recruitment efforts, being fourth highest in the reviewed programs, but we had not considered that we were recruiting our majors primarily on campus. The view of the administration was that these students were already recruited, and once students are on campus they will find another major of interest, such as environmental science, if geoscience were not available. This view was in error because many of our majors came to the campus with a strong interest in the geosciences, and likely would not have enrolled if the program was not available.

The third important lesson I can share for faculty in programs at risk of elimination is to negotiate early and diligently for an outcome you can live with. Once the review process moves to upper levels of review, your fate will be sealed; options and alternatives will be greatly restricted or not available at all. We only learned of our fate when it was announced fait accompli at the Board of Regents meeting in November 2003, a few months after the review was initiated. We had no opportunity to negotiate a partial reduction that could have saved our undergraduate geoscience and earth science education programs. Administrators and regents did not acknowledge copies of the proposal, which only saw the light of day in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper after the decision was made.

The final lesson is this: If yours is an institution that is “run like a business,” cost control and overhead generation need to be highly visible and important concerns. Moreover, both need to be integral to your core functions. One of our faculty members has a major mega-dollar grant in science education with considerable overhead and a full-time release for him to run the program. This grant program was separated from the departmental review as not germane to our core functions.

What remains of the geosciences at Southeast has been combined with the physics department. Two tenured faculty will teach mostly advanced courses in soils and geoprocessing in support of the environmental science program. The remainder of the surviving curriculum — introductory and general education courses — will be taught by adjunct faculty (including myself). Although dismayed at the demise of our department, we faculty were not materially impacted financially, but the immediate effect on our geoscience students has been far less favorable.

Thankfully, in all but one case, we have been able to advise the affected students to successful completion of their majors or satisfactory plans for transfer to other institutions. A surprising complication arose when several students showed up on campus last fall expecting to major in the geosciences. University recruiters had not informed them of the cancellation of the program.

Much of our service region is extremely poor, and economically disadvantaged students have no option other than to attend Southeast. For some of these students, geosciences provided opportunities for exciting and rewarding careers that will no longer be available to them.

Only time will tell how many other geoscience programs and other disciplines will meet a similar fate, but it’s time now to take preventative measures.

Tibbs was professor of geosciences at Southeast Missouri State University for 27 years and now continues there in an adjunct part-time position.

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