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  Geotimes - May 2007 - Geology department to close at SUNY-Albany

Geology department to close at SUNY-Albany

Long on the brink of extinction, geology at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY-Albany) has taken one step closer to the edge. In January, three of the four remaining professors of SUNY-Albany’s geology department voted to stop accepting new graduate students into the program, a move that many outraged alumni of the program see as the final nail in its coffin. With geology set to become just one track under an environmental sciences “umbrella” program, geologists in both academia and industry worry whether this is just part of the evolution of the field, or whether “classical” geology is becoming marginalized at universities.

Geology’s demise at SUNY-Albany did not happen overnight, says Bill Kidd, a structural geologist at SUNY-Albany who has been in the department since 1974 and remains strongly opposed to January’s decision. Always small, the department was nevertheless nationally ranked among the top 25 geology programs in the country during its heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, boasting world-renowned scientists, especially in tectonics, among its eight faculty. The department’s slow decline, however, began in the late 1980s, when New York state budget cuts began to put the squeeze on SUNY schools. “We understood that there were serious problems at the university — we weren’t even allowed to buy paperclips,” Kidd says.

The geology department was hit particularly hard, however, because of its size — when key faculty left or retired, they were often not replaced. By 1996, there were only five full-time professors remaining, and the department was folded into the more substantial atmospheric sciences department. “We were told, ‘there is no future for geology unless we agree to this merger,’” Kidd says. Although the faculty made other efforts to revitalize the program over the ensuing decade, these came up short from a general lack of money and support from the administration, he says. In the end, with too few faculty to teach the core courses, attract large grants and recruit top-tier students, the combined geology and atmospheric sciences voted to stop accepting undergraduate majors in 2005, and has now closed its doors to graduate students as well.

Instead, SUNY-Albany plans to create an umbrella environmental sciences program, through which students can choose to follow a geology “track.” That program, the administration says, satisfies the interests of many students, who have often chosen to enroll as environmental sciences rather than geology majors anyway. It is no substitute for geology, however, Kidd says, because it requires “no actual fieldwork or mapping courses,” and other core geology courses, such as structure, tectonics and petrology, will not be offered.

The decision to “re-focus” the department has also met with a strong response from SUNY-Albany’s geology alumni, who expressed their disappointment to the university’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, Joan Wick-Pelletier. “The alumni feel pretty strongly that we all had a classical geology education and yet we’re all doing a lot of different things,” says Paul Mann, now a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a question of extremes: I agree that you need to evolve with the times and offer courses that are about global change and current events, but getting rid of the whole geology program is an extreme.”

While calling the situation “unfortunate,” Wick-Pelletier defends the decision, noting the “sub-critical” size of the department and its long decline. “Universities are always evolving and not every university can do everything,” she says. In the past decade, she adds, SUNY-Albany’s geology department has not been what it once was, and the administration chose to focus its limited resources on its strong atmospheric sciences program instead.

Meanwhile, the new environmental sciences umbrella program, Wick-Pelletier says, is part of the university’s evolution: It will focus on concerns such as climate change and other environmental issues, which is what students want. “The only thing it won’t be producing is the standard classical geology Ph.D.,” she says, noting that students interested in that discipline can choose to attend other SUNY schools, including the other three SUNY “Centers” — Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook — that still offer geology degrees.

That viewpoint has angered many alumni, however, who see the sidelining of “classical” geology as short-sighted. After receiving a letter from Wick-Pelletier in response to a written complaint, James MacDonald, a geologist at Wright State University, says, “you can infer that she really didn’t understand what geology was. She thought classical geology was sort of done and they needed to move on — that’s the feeling that alumni were getting.” As for the environmental sciences degree, he says, “it’s not an equal degree.”

What happened at SUNY-Albany is all too familiar to many geologists in academia, who have seen their own programs wrestle with identity crises (see Geotimes, March 2004). “Pretty much any geologist who’s keeping track of geology has experienced this,” says Nick Hayman, a structural geologist at Duke University and an alumnus of SUNY-Albany’s graduate program. Earth science is in the news more than ever, but both public awareness and funding have trended toward high-profile issues like climate change and natural hazards, and many schools, including Duke, have struggled to redefine what geology is to meet the interests of their students, he says. At Duke, for example, traditional geology has given way to new directions such as environmental management and global resources. While Hayman worries that these students may miss out on key parts of a classical geology curriculum, he says that the current confusion may just be growing pains for a field that has already been through several redesigns. “I think the field is growing in a nonlinear way,” he says.

Potential employers of geoscientists share a concern that, while broadening the experience and expertise of potential applicants, such changes overlook an ongoing need for geologists who understand the fundamentals of the field. “It’s a difficult balancing act, but I think we have a requirement for both — for people in the earth sciences with strong interdisciplinary education, and also with the core basics,” says Linda Gunderson, Chief Scientist for Geology at the U.S. Geological Survey and an alumnus of Stony Brook University. “In terms of USGS’ mission, we need both to serve society.”

Mark Williams, an environmental consultant at H2H Associates in New York, echoes the concern that some programs that primarily offer a wide-range of lower-level courses may provide a broad, but insufficiently deep, education, thus leaving students unprepared for employment as geologists. “People may come into the real world and try to get jobs as geologists, but will not have the scientific background,” he says. “Ultimately what makes geologists worth their weight is their core education and experiences.”

Carolyn Gramling

"University losses at home and abroad," Geotimes, March 2004

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