Dear Website Visitor: The following essay was written for the Northeast Section newsletter of the American Institute of Professional Geologists, an organization that includes many hydrogeologists, consultants, and other professional (mostly non-academic) earth scientists in our region.  Bob Stewart is the editor and a professional environmental geologist, and his understanding of the (former) quality and value of geology at the University of Connecticut is realistic and uncompromised.

"University of Connecticut to Close Department of Geology & Geophysics"

By the time you read this edition of the newsletter, many of you will be aware of the University of Connecticut’s decision to close its Department of Geology and Geophysics. Below, I have reproduced verbatim the press release issued by Ross MacKinnon, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UConn, explaining the decision.

From: Ross D. MacKinnon, Dean College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date: January 22, 2004

Re: Dissolution of the Department of Geology & Geophysics

“I have recommended to Provost Petersen that the Department of Geology & Geophysics be dissolved and its faculty reassigned to other departments in the University. Provost Petersen has accepted my recommendation. Budget constraints, recent retirements within the Department, with other issues, such as the difficulty the Department had in formulating a strategic vision and response to external review, led me to conclude that the College could not support the faculty in the Department at the level that would make the Department viable and ensure excellence. Resources are scarce and must be invested in ways that best contribute to the advancement of scholarship and teaching within the College. The Provost and I have met with the Department faculty. I expect that faculty reassignments will be completed and in effect for the coming Fall semester.

Separate notice is being sent to the undergraduate majors and graduate students presently in the Department to reassure them as to the continued commitment of the College and University to helping them to complete their degrees within the discipline. I regret any upheaval this change causes them but anticipate that they will receive the assistance that they need to continue their studies.

This decision does not indicate in any way a lessened commitment by the College to contemporary geoscience or environmental science generally. The constraints listed above, together with recent developments at ERI (UConn’s Environmental Research Institute — ed.), the Academic Planning Document which includes Environmental Sustainability as one of its foci, and the broad Environmental Science undergraduate program, have led me to look for other alternatives to delivering quality environmental science research and instructional programs. My Office will work with the Department faculty to find other academic homes, to make the transition as smooth and fruitful as possible, and to work with the broader academic community to build a comprehensive program in environmental science, one that is interdisciplinary and spans several colleges and schools.”

On February 20, 2004 the Hartford Courant reported on an online petition begun by UConn graduate student Robert Sernoffsky in an effort to persuade the UConn administration to reverse their decision. At the time over 3,300 students, professionals, and geology department faculty from around the world had signed the petition, which can be accessed at www.petitiononline.com/10277/. The proposal to dissolve the department has been approved by the provost and will be presented to the UConn board of trustees on March 23. Ross D. MacKinnon, dean of liberal arts and sciences, remarked “he had seen the petition and, pointing out that it was posted online, questioned how much knowledge signers really have about the situation at UConn.” MacKinnon’s hope is that “the faculty can come up with a multi-disciplinary earth sciences or geoscience department that is better than the current department.” Apparently in response to MacKinnon’s concept of a multi-disciplinary earth science department, geology professor Anthony Philpotts said “geology majors from UConn all got jobs quickly upon graduation,” and that “those majoring in environmental science, a sampling of a wide range of disciplines, had more difficulty getting jobs.”

UConn’s decision is significant not only for the state of Connecticut, but also for geoscience departments at public and private colleges and universities elsewhere. At the time it was made public, the decision had been approved at a level in the administration, the provost, which suggests it may be irrevocable. The geoscience community at UConn and elsewhere is now mainly in a position of being able to react to the decision, rather than contribute to the process that preceded the decision. The press release and more recent comments by MacKinnon refer to budget cuts, a critical external review, and the department’s lack of a strategic vision weighing significantly in the decision. The basis for the decision appears to have been a deliberative process of several years duration, which begs the question of what steps, if any, the department could have taken to avoid the present outcome.

“External reviews” in the business world often come from governmental agencies in response to contract performance or from consultants performing valuations in expectation of a merger or acquisition. The latter type of external review is a good signal for employees to consider future employment options. An external review of a specific academic department presumably has a comparable goal in terms of evaluating performance: is the department successfully attracting external funding, is student enrollment strong, and perhaps, in the case of land-grant universities, is there a connection between the department and the state as a whole? The first two factors, external funding and student enrollment, often trump the issue of community service and/or outreach in terms of external evaluations.

The Connecticut public is probably most aware of the UConn geology department through the work of two of its faculty, Robert M. Thorson and Gary Robbins. Dr. Thorson has written occasional articles for the Hartford Courant as well as a fascinating account of New England stone walls (http://stonewall.uconn.edu/). Dr. Robbins’ work on site investigations and contaminant fate and transport is well known among the environmental community of Connecticut and elsewhere. Although the public image of the department may not be significant to an external review, a positive perception doesn’t hurt. Continuing education for environmental professionals is an opportunity for the faculty to educate consultants about the basic geology of Connecticut and simultaneously expand UConn’s reputation. Although nearly the entire state has been mapped at the 7.5’ quadrangle level, it doesn’t mean that the users of these maps couldn’t use an introduction or refresher on their interpretation.

External funding for academic geologists comes in the form of research grants from a variety of sources including the National Science Foundation, US EPA, state environmental protection agencies, and private industry. Universities want external funding because they can (1) capitalize on the reputation of the grant recipient, and (2) charge overhead costs on top of the money that actually goes to the investigator, improving the university’s bottom line. Like it or not, the availability of external funding commonly responds to market forces active in society as a whole, with one result being the popularity of environmental science programs at the expense of traditional “single-science” departments such as geology. It is therefore a reasonable assumption that any external review of a geoscience program will consider the “relevance” of externally funded research. Nowadays, the result may be that courses, and research, considered essential 20 years ago, when many full professors were obtaining tenure, are now viewed as passé in the context of environmental science. Crystallography, igneous and metamorphic petrology, and economic geology are a few examples, even though such courses and research may have an unappreciated relevance for environmental site investigations and other practical geologic work, a point I have made publicly elsewhere. The issue facing geoscience faculty in this predicament is whether such teaching and research interests can change to achieve the necessary relevance in the eyes of those conducting external reviews.

My own alma mater, Lehigh University, followed the environmental science trend in the 1990s and created a single department of earth and environmental sciences from the existing departments of biological and geological sciences. In doing so, the new department offered an environmental science degree in addition to stand-alone degrees in geology and ecology for those individuals capable of handling some of the advanced courses in collateral sciences and mathematics required for graduation. Prior to the merge, the geology department had evolved in response to declining enrollments. The traditional summer field camp in the northern Rocky Mountains was expanded to include a field course for non-majors, taught in parallel with the original course. The change reflected good marketing in terms of dollars and publicity for the department. My undergraduate program of studies in the 1970s included three required courses, generally in sequence, consisting of optical crystallography, mineral phase relations, and the petrology and petrography of igneous and metamorphic rocks. These three courses followed upon an introductory course in mineralogy. This requirement has since been reduced to a single, basic course in petrology and petrography, with optical mineralogy falling victim to the change in market and faculty retirement. I think the overall changes in the department were unfortunate in some respects and positive in others, but as my former advisor remarked to me, to a large degree the changes reflected “what the kids wanted”. Interestingly, the department began to evolve in the same manner, and only slightly later, as the U. S. Geological Survey, which after suffering a bloodletting during the 1994-1995 congressional Contract On America, now includes the Biological Resources Discipline (BRD), a commingling that presumably reflects congressional interests in environmental science as an interdisciplinary effort.

I continued my geological training with a doctorate at the University of Western Ontario, which over the past five years has changed in comparable ways to Lehigh and other schools – a change in department name (from geology to earth sciences), with greater emphasis upon geology as the primary template for environmental sciences, but without geology losing its identity as a major program. My career as a geologist included a stint as an academic during the 1980s at a large state university in a department of “earth sciences” which included geologists, a thriving group of meteorologists (actually applied mathematicians), one geographer, and one professor who educated secondary school earth science teachers. A majority of the department faculty and some graduate students viewed the department’s name, Earth Sciences, negatively, because of a perceived connotation of emphasis upon earth science teaching, which was considered soft science or non-science and hence a liability in terms of academic prestige. The faculty elected to change the name, which became “Geological and Atmospheric Sciences.” Ironically, within a few years the Earth Sciences moniker would have become an asset.

Geology students follow employment trends like anyone else, and since the promulgation of the Superfund law (CERCLA) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1980, the trend has been away from traditional employers of geologists (e.g., petroleum, mining) and toward jobs involving environmental management – identification and protection of water resources, environmental cleanup, and to a lesser extent, regulatory compliance.

A geology major is like any other commodity – if consumers don’t like the product, they won’t buy it, despite philosophical objections concerning the academic mission of a university. For a department to thrive, the major must appeal to students, and the faculty must figure out a way to convey this appeal and its value over an interdisciplinary major. Geology has been a multi-disciplinary science for years, although not in the fashion currently in vogue among many university administrations. Biology, chemistry, and physics, for example, are inextricably linked to a host of geological fields – carbonate rocks, bioattenuation of hydrocarbon contamination, and the behavior of modern and ancient ice sheets, to name a few examples. As Professor Philpotts points out, re-packaging and diluting core disciplines (geology, biology, chemistry, etc.) into the vaguely defined “environmental science” major provides the student with a program of studies lacking a specific strength. From my point of view as a consultant performing environmental site investigations, newly minted graduates with environmental science degrees are at a distinct disadvantage in respect to the technical knowledge geology graduates bring to interviews, other factors being equal (ability to get along with others, positive personal and professional work ethic, favorable references, etc.).

The issues I have discussed above are common to the process of developing a strategic vision. Borrowing again from private sector experience, a request to develop a strategic vision statement is often treated with suspicion because of the perception of an ulterior motive, namely layoffs and/or program elimination under whatever euphemism to improve profitability. Failure to develop a strategic vision in academia can stem from a variety of factors: imposition of an unacceptable concept by the administration upon a department, disunity within a department, etc. Whatever the reason, lack of a strategic vision will have a negative outcome in the context of an external review, especially if there are other factors driving a decision over which a department may have no control, such as the overall level of state funding to the university.

As a professional geologist for over 25 years, a resident of Connecticut since 1988, and a current employer of UConn geology graduates, I don’t need to be sold on UConn’s geology program. Among the technical attributes I value in geology graduates are an ability to (1) apply the academic training provided in the various sub-disciplines of geology to practical problems, and (2) think in three dimensions in your approach to (1). UConn does a good job of providing the former, and encouraging the latter, which often continues to flourish upon practical employment with the encouragement of senior professionals.

Prudent management of most private and public enterprises operates under the guidance of a strategic vision, including university systems. As a process seeking input, this means a specific department must either participate in formulating the vision, or watch other stakeholders advance theirs. It may be too late in the game to persuade UConn to reverse its decision to dissolve the geology department, and it is unfortunate that the geologic community can now only react to the decision. It is not too late for the administration to preserve the geology major as part of the successor program in environmental sciences. Undergraduate and graduate geology degree programs are essential to UConn and any school that claims excellence in science and engineering.

It is impossible to predict whether AIPG and other professional geological organizations could have made a positive contribution to the external review process that would have resulted in the continued existence of the geology department at UConn. As a matter of self-preservation, perhaps other geology programs facing similar challenges will look beyond their own confines for constructive advice. It never hurts to listen, and UConn’s decision illustrates the worst that can happen.

Bob Stewart, CPG-08332