Geologic Column
The Department You Save May Be Your Own: Part II
Steps for Saving Your Department
Lisa Rossbacher and Dallas Rhodes

In 1993, Ron Abler, who was then director of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), wrote an essay about how to destroy an academic department. Eight years later, he published a new article in the AAG newsletter titled “Five Steps to Oblivion, II” — in which he lamented the fact that the advice was still needed.

Abler’s recipe for disaster is straightforward enough that most of us recognize the ingredients: 1) Elect and reelect a weak chair who cannot lead the faculty; 2) lose several of your most productive colleagues; 3) eschew undergraduate education and majors; 4) forego participation in campus governance; and 5) glory in bitter ideological and personal vendettas. And if these five steps are not sufficient, the optional final step will be certain to produce results: When all else fails, war against your dean.

Geology departments that want to survive, however, can learn from Abler’s steps and the demise of others and prevent a similar fate befalling them.

Most important to saving your department from oblivion is to start now. The decision to eliminate a geology department never happens overnight, but by the time the plan is announced, it is almost always too late to change anything. Departments must be proactive to be successful, and taking the following steps will help in the fight.

Demonstrate and publicize the geology department’s value at every opportunity. Learn from the administrator’s lexicon and keep a list of “bragging points,” for example: “This department ranks 8th out of 30 on this campus in terms of the number of student credit hours produced by each member of the faculty.” Admittedly, this kind of data is not what excites most of us about our departments. But it is mother’s milk to deans, provosts and presidents who could not care less about the timing of deformational events in the Blue Ridge.

Know the data. Keep good records on all aspects of the department. Many of the data will be needed for annual reports, program reviews, strategic planning, outcomes assessment and the other reports that are now required of every academic program. Do not wait to be asked to collect the information. Give the good information to the dean and work on addressing any problems.

Do a good job with program reviews. In these days of shrinking budgets, reviews are becoming a tool for program elimination, and a poorly prepared review may be all the reason that an administrator with no understanding of geology needs. If problems are identified, be sure you have a written plan to address them. The inability to respond to issues raised in their most recent program review was a major reason cited by University of Connecticut officials in their decision to eliminate their geology department this year.

Actively proselytize. Make people aware of geology and the earth sciences. Most people (including administrators and faculty in other departments) do not have a good understanding of what geology is. Like many “second culture” disciplines (see Part I, Geotimes, April 2004), the geosciences are not part of most high school curricula.

Invest resources and talent in core courses. Introductory courses are the source of almost all your credit-hour production and where most geology majors come from. Use this opportunity to put the department’s best foot — and best faculty — forward. Administrators pay attention to students’ evaluations of faculty and courses. Geology departments not investing their resources in the courses for the core are creating problems for themselves that will be nearly impossible to address reactively.

Develop alliances with other academic departments on campus. Courses in geographic information systems, remote sensing and cartography provide tools that can be applied in any discipline. Geology departments frequently have the expertise to offer some or all of the relevant courses. Be sure you know your state’s science curriculum standards, especially if your university has a college of education. Work with education faculty to ensure that their students are given the content they need. The more connections a department has across the university, the greater the harm in eliminating the program.

Collaborate with geology departments at other schools. With the exception of some research programs that compete for funding of major projects and top graduate students, most geoscience departments are not competing with each other. By helping each other, we strengthen our collective argument for our importance in higher education.

Use all the available tools for increasing the department’s visibility. This includes getting articles in the alumni magazine (even if you have to write them yourself), volunteering your department to participate in public events and showing up for every open house.

Also, keep your alumni involved, contribute to the public discussion on local and regional issues, and get every faculty member’s name on the campus “media experts” list. Essentially, take every opportunity to educate people, both on- and off-campus, about why geology is important to them and to their lives.

These activities can literally make the difference between a department’s life and death. Like species extinction, geology programs do not reappear once they are eliminated.

Once a geology program’s elimination is announced, reincarnation may take a very different form — often in the guise of environmental science. In an effort to mollify those who tried to save the University of Connecticut geology program, officials stressed that they were not eliminating the geosciences from the curriculum. As Ross Mackinnon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science said: “It’s not the end of earth sciences at the university, it’s the end of geology.”

No, it’s oblivion.

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.

Read part I of this column in the April issue of Geotimes.

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