In 2002, the Cornell University Department of Geological Science broadened
into the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, bringing in the atmospheric
group from another department. At the time, the geology program had only a few
undergraduate majors. Now, the new department administers 80 to 100 undergraduates
in three majors Geological Sciences, Science of Earth Systems and Atmospheric
Snee Hall is home to Cornell Universitys Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Since broadening its subject base in 2002, the department has greatly increased its number of majors. Photo by Lynda Swafford, Cornell University.
Each major has a separate focus. For example, the Science of Earth Systems major takes an approach that highlights interactions among the solid earth, the atmosphere and the oceans. The major draws students from the Colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Agriculture and Life Sciences. It makes a stronger department, says Kerry Cook, an atmospheric scientist who helped head up the recent metamorphosis. You have to add other elements.
That theme seems to be more common among small geology departments at all schools, from private Ivies to state-run universities, which have been under financial pressures. The shift, some say, is headed toward environmental sciences or a softening of the geological sciences but some departments, like Cornells, that have undergone successful transitions lately have opted for more rigor, yet more breadth. Those that have the option of combining with another department or that redefine themselves in some way may end up better off than when they started.
At the University of Missouri at Rolla and Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech), it was the threat to another department that created the right circumstances for a merger of related geosciences at each institution. The two technology-oriented schools are state-funded, and such public institutions have been feeling the crunch. Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau recently shut down its geology department because of funding issues, among others (see Geotimes, May 2004, and sidebar in previous feature).
Geologist Jay Gregg lectures before a roadcut along Highway 72 in eastern Missouri. Gregg chairs the newly formed Department of Geological Sciences & Engineering at the University of Missouri at Rolla. Photo by Katherine Mattison, University of Missouri at Rolla.
At Rolla, the faculty themselves started the process of merging their geology department with geological and petroleum engineers last year. Rather than fight what appeared to be inevitable, says Jay Gregg, a geologist who chairs the new department, the faculty embraced the change and tried to combine with as little disruption as possible. Gregg and his colleagues admit it was an interesting undertaking, considering the disparate views of engineering and geology cultures. From six departments, the universitys School of Materials, Energy & Earth Resources went to three, with the new configurations becoming official on July 1.
Over the past 30 years, Rollas school of mines had seen slightly shrinking enrollments. Its not easy to get 17- and 18-year-olds interested in mining. Theyre interested in computers and communication technologies, says Jeff Cawlfield, a geological engineer who is associate chair of the new department. But we dont need everybody to be an information technology person, he continues, and with the bursting of the IT bubble several years ago, were seeing an uptick, especially in petroleum.
The enrollment in petroleum engineering has increased but only from 5 new freshmen to 10 a year. Thats a doubling for us, but to the administration, thats not much, Cawlfield says. We point out that although these are small programs, they are critical because the departments graduates go to major oil companies, where they play an important role.
We had to concentrate on recruiting undergraduate majors, Gregg says. With the departmental mergers and a recent increase in student interest, the department is now over 80 majors strong.
Michigan Tech faced a similar situation, says Wayne Pennington, chair of its newly merged department, except that the main change came from the top down. Like most mining departments, Pennington says that Michigan Techs was experiencing declining enrollment. To save on administrative costs, he says, the university merged the mining engineering department with the department that was then geological engineering, geology and geophysics and, within the next year, terminated their undergraduate mining engineering degree. The merger brought a few more students into the new department, and despite losing faculty members to other departments, only one tenure-track position was eliminated altogether.
The closure of mining served as a serious wakeup call to us and other programs at other universities, programs like us, Pennington says. At any university, any small department has to be aware that at some occasion the administration simply must consider their closure. Whether or not that was a serious consideration of our administration, we will never know.
But in the midst of such upheaval, the Michigan Tech geology and engineering faculty took a hard look at what our strengths were and weaknesses, he says. For a routine external review, the faculty prepared very carefully, Pennington says, and instead of a basket of problems, we presented a basket of scenarios for improvement.
Self-scrutiny played a similar role for the geologists and engineers at the University of Missouri at Rolla. Now that the budget situation for the Missouri university system has changed, the department is feeling less under the gun, Cawlfield says, and the consolidation provides some protection, particularly because of the facultys willingness to examine their inefficiencies and improve them. Weve done in good faith what we could do, he says.
What led us to survive is the fact that the University of Missouri-Rolla is not a large university, its a small engineering school, Gregg says. He points out that Southeast Missouri State is a much larger school, and its geology department was still at higher risk.
The merger made us the largest geological department in the state of Missouri; when states look to cut, its better to be a bigger than a smaller program, he says, combining an active research community with turning out a lot of students with degrees. If youre not going to do that, youre not going to be very survivable.
For Cornell the issue was less about survivability and more about general departmental health. A school of 16,000, Cornell has a long history of geologic prestige and would never completely eliminate its geology department, Cook says: Theres some kind of immunity there, one that atmospheric sciences, for example, may not have. Nevertheless, she says, the thing that really drove the change was the needs of the undergraduate program to develop a more earth systems approach, and the interdisciplinary change has been exciting.
All of these transformed departments, however, have one strong commonality: The faculty decided that they would maintain scientific rigor. We realized we werent going to be able to dumb down our programs, Gregg says, and still ensure that their graduates continue to be hired by mining, engineering and oil companies something he says other geology programs have done to their own detriment.
Departments can essentially take two paths, one that maintains scientific rigor by increasing the breadth of the science studied, and another that blends in policy or social science. In Cornells case, Cook says that the new department was able to maintain scientific rigor while still allowing students to take elective courses that blend in social science. Thus, some of Cornells earth science majors, who take interdisciplinary science courses, may go to policy programs or environmental law after they finish.
For threatened departments, knowing when to shift into survival mode is not necessarily clear, however (see story). While a variety of methods and behaviors can ensure a departments continued existence, perhaps in the end, it comes down to a more fickle deciding factor: student preference.
For example, Pennington says, the Michigan Tech department has maintained its scientific rigor, combined with other fields and conducted sincere self-evaluation and made appropriate changes. Nevertheless, that doesnt mean we havent been changing our emphasis, as the student clientele change their emphasis, he says. Adding to their strong programs in petroleum and mineral resources and in groundwater engineering, Michigan Tech recently adopted a natural hazards program with a Peace Corps volunteer component, and historically the department includes an earth science teachers program.
Every case like this, Pennington says, is a unique case, with different conditions.
Geotimes spoke to
a handful of geology students to see what they were thinking about their
futures in the field. Like most students in any discipline, they are grappling
with the difficult question of whats next.