Building Support for your Department

published Feb 23, 2010 4:32pm

by P. Geoffry Feiss (College of William and Mary)

To paraphrase Mr. Dickens, these are the "best of times and the worst of times" for earth science.

The best of times? I cannot recall a time in fifty years of awareness of geoscience education when the subject matter and skills central to our disciplines have been more in the public eye, more critical to the resolution of significant societal problems.

The worst of times? Clearly, the Great Recession has placed unprecedented constraints on every pre- and post-secondary institution (see Dave Steer's "President's Corner" in the July 2009 NAGT Newsletter). And, as we all know, both well-meaning and mean-spirited administrators facing the dilemma of cutting costs and maintaining quality have, in the past, turned to geoscience programs as cannon fodder.

Why us? We tend to be small– a tasty budgetary morsel. Few senior administrators are geoscientists and few at the table where decisions are made will advocate for us. We have sometimes been our own worst enemies -- not explaining the centrality of the geosciences to the enterprise, not engaging in the strategic decision-making processes, hoping that the axe will fall elsewhere. And, sometimes, we have just been unlucky: targets of opportunity because we have too many untenured or near-retirement faculty, for example.

How then, to continue the Dickensian theme, do geoscience programs avoid the fate of Sidney Carton in these troubled financial times?

Over five years with NSF support and co-sponsorship by NAGT, this question has been discussed at GSA and AGU and stand-alone workshops by more than 225 geoscientists from more than 125 post-secondary institutions (2- and 4-year, public and private, baccalaureate and research, small and large). Christened the Building Strong Departments (BSD) project, we have learned much (see the project website where workshop contributions and presentations, related publications, case studies, and best practices can be perused and shamelessly borrowed).

We hope that this site is a community resource to make us all stronger in our highly varied academic missions. We attempt to provide ammunition for the common goal of expanding knowledge of the earth system and sharing that knowledge and understanding with the broader community.

We believe this is working. In two or three instances this year, a geoscience department has been threatened by severe budgetary restrictions, if not outright closure. Individuals in these programs have used BSD resources. Together, we orchestrated a strong, national response, provided insight into constructive actions to be taken, and successfully presented a united front in the face of a poorly informed decision by senior administrators.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this project, to beat the Dickensian metaphor to death, allows geoscience departments to survive the trials and tribulations of, say, an academic David Copperfield and, by dint of perseverance and virtue, ultimately triumph. I hope so. Join us.