been warned more than once already. Academic geology departments are under attack
and have been for more than a decade. In a 1995 Geological Society of America
(GSA) newsletter, Geoff Feiss, then geology department chair at University of
North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote: We all need to care about the stability
of academic geology programs in perilous times. We should have listened.
In the spring, the University of Connecticut (shown here), citing budget problems among other concerns, announced it was going to dissolve its geology and geophysics department. Geology departments are facing increasing challenges to survive. Photo by Peter Marinas, University of Connecticut.
Feiss, a geologist, noted that seven schools in the Southeastern Section of the Geological Society of America (GSA) alone had each either disappeared or been given the fright of its life. Since 1996, the numbers have only become worse. Between 1989 and 2002, the number of geo- departments (geology, geological sciences or geosciences) in the United States decreased by 16 percent and earth science departments dropped by 22 percent. Over this same period, 19 colleges and universities stopped offering any bachelors degree that could be listed in the American Geological Institutes (AGI) Directory of Geoscience Departments (see sidebar for additional statistics).
The trend for geology departments is clear. The first step is elimination of the geology department, replaced by a broader, fuzzier (and perhaps friendlier) name. The next step is to add other disciplines, probably reflecting administrative mergers. Then, oblivion.
Our two recent Geotimes Geologic Columns (see April and May 2004) have considered the reasons why geoscience programs are the targets of program reductions and suggested what departments themselves can do to avoid the chopping block. Our subject here in what could be considered the third installment of the series The Department You Save May Be Your Own is what can and should be done outside the threatened programs to provide support. Geology departments cannot save themselves alone. The geological and scientific communities must be engaged, too.
What do we need?
A carefully constructed and broadly supported statement of what geology has to offer to society and a set of standards for reference.
Geology departments dont exist or cease to exist in a vacuum.
Having a broader context in which to make the case can make an enormous difference.
Professional programs ranging from engineering to fashion design have nationally
recognized programmatic standards to reference. Among the physical sciences,
however, only chemistry has the benefit of broader standards, through the American
Chemical Society. Although earth science has a presence in the National Science
Education Standards, it is not enough. Instead, geologists should emulate what
our colleagues in geography have done.
In 1994, the American Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and the National Geographic Society developed the National Geography Standards, called Geography for Life. These standards provide a clear description of what every young American should know and be able to do in geography. The original motivation for creating this statement was the inclusion of geography in the K-12 core curriculum outlined by the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Public Law 103-227). However, the geography standards work equally well for undergraduate programs responding to demands for institutional effectiveness plans, program assessment and review, and strategic planning. A number of undergraduate geography programs refer to the standards on their Web sites and use them to demonstrate that their programs are providing the education the national standards describe. Such standards are also important for reaffirmation by accrediting bodies.
Deans and other campus decision-makers understand the importance of program accreditation. In fact, they often list successful accreditation reviews as accomplishments during their tenure. Furthermore, accreditation standards are sometimes enforced by laws that require graduation from an accredited program before candidates can sit for certain license or registration examinations. We are not proposing that the geosciences create an accreditation program, but we can learn and borrow from programs that have accreditation standards.
The American Geophysical Union (AGU), AGI, GSA, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) and any other professional organization that cares about the future of geology should mount a major effort to produce and publicize a set of national geology standards. The process of developing these standards will require cooperation among these organizations to focus their energy on fostering the future of our science.
Accurate, useful, comprehensive data about geology programs collected and maintained by a central site.
Currently every department chair trying to promote or defend her or his program
has few information resources that can help. The AGI Directory is one
valuable resource but it is only updated annually and does not provide all the
metrics that departments may need. Without a comprehensive, up-to-date central
data warehouse, the information available to geology departments is ad hoc,
incomplete, outdated or anecdotal. Every academic department lives and dies
by comparative data, such as student-credit-hour production, numbers of undergraduate
and graduate degrees, enrollment, faculty composition, external funding and
budgetary information. Departments desperately need a frame of reference for
their own quantitative measurements.
Most geology programs belong to one of three kinds of institutions: research universities, predominately undergraduate state-sponsored universities or liberal arts colleges. Worthwhile data for comparisons must come from institutions within the same group. Any one of the professional geoscience societies could take the lead in gathering, organizing and distributing these data. Organizing and implementing this effort will take resources, but a central source of accurate data will also save incalculable resources that are currently being wasted, as every department has to collect its own comparative data from scratch. Every geoscience program in the country could benefit, and therefore the profession would benefit as well. No one else is going to do this for us.
Systematic, centralized support for planning efforts.
Finally, we can save ourselves a great deal of time, which we could spend on
improving our programs, by helping departments produce the kinds of planning
documents all institutions now require. Anyone who has not recently delved into
the world of assessment in higher education cannot imagine what is expected
now. As with data collection, individual departments are on their own to develop
plans and strategies for survival. This, like individualized data collection,
is not only wasteful of time and energy, it potentially hurts the profession.
A first encounter with the language of assessment provides about as much insight as a volume of IRS regulations written in ancient Phoenician. Professional societies can provide help by making the assessment process understandable and valuable. Today, every academic course must have a set of explicitly stated objectives and outcomes, a detailed plan for assessing the degree of success in achieving the objectives, and a plan for how this information will be used to make improvements in the course. The same idea applies for an individual degree program, the academic department, its college and the institution as a whole. No one escapes this.
As in the case of a centralized clearinghouse for accurate data, a group of professional societies can provide a central repository for strategic plans, assessment programs, evaluation instruments and outcomes reports that can be shared with interested programs. Departments should not have to start from scratch when they undertake outcomes reviews or assessment studies, and the results will be far stronger if geoscience models can be shared broadly. This effort could build on current community-sharing efforts, such as AGUs Heads and Chairs program and AGIs Associates program, but include the information that department chairs need to ensure their survival. A geology department that is able to use a strong example from another geology department arguably will have a better final result than if they start with a model from an English department.
As Carl Drummond of NAGT pointed out in 2001: Programmatic survival in the face of the complexities of the modern university demands thoughtfulness on the part of all faculty. Today, this demand is the responsibility of geoscientists as a group, whether they hold faculty positions or not. Professional societies can and should play a leadership role in the effort to protect departments. These organizations have experience and a structure for political action and for organized responses. They have access to data that can help everyone. They have the resources to undertake studies that demonstrate the value of geology, and they have the credibility to issue the results in reports that will command attention.
A former president of GSA described the responsibility of that professional society to all geologists: To retain the respect of the community and to retain influence for good, we must be able to justify the existence of a society devoted to investigation The question Cui bono? [to whose benefit] will be asked, and the answer cannot be avoided. the Society must have more to do with the outside world if the outcome for science is to be what it should be. The president was John J. Stevenson and the year was 1898. How much longer can we afford to ignore the warning?
Recent closures of geology programs at U.S. colleges and universities
reflect a continuing decrease in the number of bachelor degree-granting
geoscience programs. Geology programs are becoming the province of well-endowed
smaller colleges and large universities. Schools with smaller enrollments
and scarcer resources are eliminating geology departments or broadening
their scope, sometimes beyond recognition. Most closures start with a
simple name change or merger and then continue on to dissolution. Longitudinal
data from the American Geological Institutes Directory of Geoscience
Departments support this trend (see feature above).
Drummond, Carl N., 2001, Ten common principles of geoscience departments - Part I: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 49, n.2, p. 108.
Feiss, P. Geoffrey, 1996, The survival of academic geology programs: GSA Today, v. 6, p. 16-17.