Messing with Mackay

Those not mad enough about the loss, sort of, of Mackay School of Mines are in a fury over the firing, sort of, of a dean

Faculty, students and alumni joined the protest over changes at the Mackay School of Mines.

Faculty, students and alumni joined the protest over changes at the Mackay School of Mines.

Photo By David Robert

A group of students marched across the large rectangle of grass from Morrill Hall to the Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada, Reno. They made their way toward the statue of the school’s namesake, John Mackay, a pick hoisted to his burnished shoulder. A crowd had gathered there in front of the school, faculty and students from across the campus joining graduates of the School of Mines and community business people.

The unifying factor?

If it wasn’t outrage over the university administration’s plan to meld the world-renowned Mackay School of Mines into a new College of Science, then it was fury over the heavy-handed canning of Mackay Mines’ Dean Jane Long, a critic of the reorganization plan.

Though university President John Lilley wasn’t being burned in effigy at Thursday’s protest, he wasn’t getting a lot of rhetorical love, either.

“Lilley can’t be trusted,” one sign carped, relating the boss’s plans to bulldoze Fleischmann to the Mackay muddle. “Space Place. Mackay next?”

Another sign offered a simple suggestion: “Dump Lilley.”

The bells chimed noon. Speakers, one after another, stepped up to a microphone at the base of the Mackay statue.

Grad student Shane Smith read an open letter to Lilley.

“We are startled and deeply concerned,” the letter said of students learning the dean had been demoted to faculty after her long struggle to reach a compromise with administrators. “We feel we have no representation in the decision-making process.”

A student cartoonist, Melanie Berg, walked through the crowd distributing two small slips of paper with her work. One ‘toon showed three students, labeled “U,” “N” and “R”, standing in front of a catapult. A female carrying a “Mackay” banner sat perched melodramatically in the catapult’s bowl. A suited man wearing a crown labeled “Lilley” holds a pair of scissors ready to cut the rope and let ‘er fly. The caption read: “Now kids, let’s see what happens when you question authority.”

The female was intended to represent Long, now the former dean of MSM. Though administrators will contend that Long was not fired for expressing her opinions, it’s been admitted that her decision to take the debate outside the university—to such groups as the Mackay Advisory Board—was a main factor in the decision to ask her to pack up her desk.

“I think the administration concluded that she was no longer a part of their team,” newly appointed MSM Dean Jim Taranik told a reporter from the Sagebrush, UNR’s student newspaper.

The split of UNR’s College of Arts and Sciences has been haggled over and gnawed on for about a year now. The proposed reorganization would divide the college into two new colleges of about equal sizes: A College of Liberal Arts and a College of Science. Mackay School of Mines, which is under scrutiny for attracting too few new students, would be mostly squeezed into the College of Science. Its Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering Department would join the College of Engineering.

The benefits of such a plan?

Well, since it’s realistic to infer that creating offices and support staffs for two deans would not actually save any money, benefits now being touted are the freeing up of each new college staff to do its own fund-raising. Also, the new colleges may be able to achieve a clearer focus as far as academic goals go.

The drawbacks?

UNR’s Faculty Senate set out to evaluate the plan using a committee of instructors who, for the sake of objectivity, weren’t going to be affected by the split. This group ended up recommending that the administration not continue with the big split until offering further proof that the plan will be useful. The entire UNR Faculty Senate will vote on its recommendation to the administration on Thursday.

“There are too many unresolved issues and unanswered questions,” the committee’s report noted. “Until more specific benchmarks, evidence of effectiveness and review by outside sources provide evidence that such wide-sweeping changes are warranted and productive, this committee does not recommend proceeding with the proposed comprehensive reorganization.”

As far as freedom of speech on the UNR playground goes, administrators contend that denizens of the university community have had plenty of chances to speak out about the plan—without fear of retribution.

“There have been a rigorous academic examination and a healthy exchange of differing opinions about possible outcomes and consequences,” Lilley wrote in an e-mail to faculty and staff last week. “The freedom to express dissent is central to the life of a university. Witness the fact that one of the most vocal faculty critics of the university’s earliest reorganization efforts, Eric Herzik, now provides critical leadership within the university as an interim dean. Faculty members at this university will not suffer administrative repercussions for their exercise of free expression.”

As for Long’s case, Lilley chalked that up to “a loss of confidence in an administrator.”

“The provost must have complete and enduring confidence in administrators who carry out and provide the day-to-day leadership responsibilities within the university. One does not lose that level of confidence over one event.”

He even offered some kind words about Long as a parting gesture.

“Professor Long has been given a development leave before resuming full faculty status. She is a world-class scientist and will continue to make important contributions to the university in that capacity.”

Back at the protest, petitions were passed. Hundreds signed a request that begged the administration not to mess with Mackay.

One of the biggest concerns listed in the petition is the loss of the MSM name.

“The loss of the school would undermine MSM’s effectiveness in the areas of visibility, endowments, and research funding [and] may be adversely affected by loss of college status and the proposed change of name,” the petition said. “The MSM name is internationally recognized and is the most widely known brand name in the entire university. In part because of the association of the Mackay name with high standards and quality work, donations and funding have flowed into UNR to support education and research.”

A graduate student sat at the feet of the Mackay statue eating a sandwich and holding a sign that said, “Help us to improve our school, not destroy it.”

Jeremy McHugh, 24, said he came to Reno from Memphis. He’s concerned, he said, that with the reorganization of colleges will come a redistribution of funds that will weaken programs that are strong, without helping those that are weak.

“The worst part is that they’re degrading the quality of education for everyone," he said.