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University losses at home and abroad

Two universities announced the effective closure of their geology research departments in January. The University of Connecticut (UConn) and the University of Basel in Switzerland, cited budget problems among other concerns in announcing the changes.

A demonstration on Jan. 29 protested the phaseout of geology research at the University of Basel in Switzerland, several days after the University of Connecticut announced it was considering closing its geology department. Courtesy of R. Heilbronner.


The UConn board of trustees most likely will vote on March 23 on a recommendation to dissolve their geology and geophysics department. A mixture of departmental politics and budgetary shortfalls has led to the department’s demise, and the university will no longer offer geological sciences degrees.

Dean Ross MacKinnon, who recommended closing the department to the university provost on Jan. 22, says current geology undergraduates — which number about 24 — will be able to finish their degrees. MacKinnon says an external review indicated the department needed to change to fit current undergraduate needs.

MacKinnon says that tenured faculty will move to other existing departments, such as marine sciences and chemistry, according to their disciplines. In the end, he says, “I hope they would come up with a geoscience curriculum that would be even richer,” one that crosses disciplines and departments.

Current UConn geology department head Raymond Joesten says the combination of too few students, “unique internal friction” and university-wide budget problems contributed to the department’s imminent dissolution. “If it was two out of three, we may not have gotten crunched,” he says, but he remains optimistic that a geology degree will still be attainable at UConn.

Anthony Philpotts, a UConn petrologist, says the external review was “unfortunate” and incorrect in many ways, and that the department did not respond quickly enough. He also says that departmental efforts to cater to increased undergraduate interest in the environmental sciences had watered down the geology curriculum, combining mineralogy and petrology, for example, into a one-semester course. “Over the years the department has become smaller because of splitting off of geography and marine sciences. Now we are told we are too small to be viable,” he says. Once abolished, Philpotts says, reinstating geology and geophysics degrees would require a lengthy process involving the state board of higher education.

“After the early 1990s, we had eight years or so of strong budgets and even state surpluses,” says Bob Ridky, national education coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey, “but now it’s a different ball game. If you’re graduating a comparatively small number of majors and you don’t have a large, robust service component, you’re going to be in trouble.” Ridky, who says he is unfamiliar with the details of the UConn case, notes that this may be a “wakeup call” for faculty at other universities.

“I’m exceedingly disappointed because it’s horribly shortsighted,” says Chris Maples, vice president for research at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada and a former geology department chair at Indiana University. He is not surprised, he says, “because they have short-term budgets and hires to deal with.” And administrators, who look for money-earning disciplines such as biology, may consider geology “a boutique science,” he says.

Across the Atlantic, similar events are playing out at the Geological Institute at the University of Basel, which has announced it will phase out all research activities. The University Council proposes cutting the budget of the organization by half by 2008 and requiring its geologists to teach only. The change would also meld them into a new department of environmental sciences that will include geography, meteorology and integrative plant biology.

Under the new plan, Basel would continue offering a bachelor’s degree in geology. But master’s and doctoral candidates would be concentrated at the department of earth sciences at the Zurich ETH, considered the premier of the seven Swiss geological institutes.

“They’re arguing that we do not have enough students,” a key criteria in the council’s review, says Stefan Schmid, tectonics professor and head of the Geological Institute. Schmid says the department obtained more than half its financing from outside grants, and that its student base already increased with a recent broadening of the curriculum into environmental sciences.

The Geological Institute will respond to the University Council by the end of February, Schmid says, and the Basel Canton (akin to a U.S. state government) will decide this month how to proceed. “Theoretically if our comments are convincing, they may rethink their decision,” though he says that he does not have much hope.

Noting similar instances over the past few decades in Britain and elsewhere, John Dewey, a geology professor at the University of California, Davis, says that closures of geology departments at such government-funded institutions are “like a virus that’s spreading.”

Naomi Lubick

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