Splitting Arts & Science

A plan to reorder colleges and departments at the University of Nevada, Reno, has faculty members raging over the research vs. teaching dilemma

The University of Nevada, Reno, is under construction—in more ways than one.

The University of Nevada, Reno, is under construction—in more ways than one.

Photo By David Robert

Reorganization documents and an online forum for questions and answers about the proposed plan are at www.unr.edu.

Opposition seems to be hardening in a rift over a planned reorganization of colleges and departments at the University of Nevada, Reno, though a few points seem common to all. Money’s scarce at UNR, resources are stretched, and the allocation of funding for faculty and new building projects seems flawed to many.

To begin with, last spring the university was hit with a $7 million funding shortfall between what the governor had recommended and what the Nevada Legislature approved during its last session for UNR. The funding was based on a 4 percent growth rate in student enrollment, but enrollment went up 8 percent this academic year, in part due to incentives like the Millennium Scholarship.

“That is a piece of it—we’re doing more and more with less and less, as a lot of [organizations] are,” says John Frederick, interim university provost and head of the University Planning Committee for reorganization.

So change is good. But just how drastic does that change need to be? A proposal to split the university’s largest college, the College of Arts & Science, has faculty arguing over whether such a drastic overhaul is needed.

The Arts & Science split is just one possible facet of the reorganization plan, which ranges from merging small programs such as women’s and minority studies to bringing the communication folks into the journalism school.

“Another piece is finding a way to do what we do more cost effectively,” Frederick says. “Get departments together that do the same programs—get programs to build off each other’s strengths.”

Those arguing for a new College of Science & Mathematics say that they’re ready to make the leap to the university’s much-touted next level, to play with “the big boys” and to make a name for Reno. They merely need the support of a dean who knows their mission, the camaraderie of like-minded folk who dig the scientific method and the ability to “leverage” their “resources” (read: money) for increased efficiency. They want to be free of “unnecessary restrictions” that come from their current marriage with the humanities.

“Science chairs are by and large in favor of the change,” says Steven Hayes, chairman of the Psychology Department. “[It will help us] increase the focus on our given mission. [All departments within Arts & Science] are interested in education, but we’re taking different paths toward excellence.”

Hogwash, say critics of the proposal, who’d like to see examples of how splitting the college would cause more cooperation and interaction between department heads—and want to know why the science faculty members think they can get more outside funding as a new college.

Also, splitting the college would actually mean more money for administrative costs, since the resulting two new colleges would require two deans and two support staffs. That could end up costing plenty. Add those financial costs to the bad feelings of those “left behind” in the humanities, and you’ve got a recipe for a long-term morale mess in the academic family.

The reorganization, which started less than a year ago, when UNR’s new president John Lilley took the reins, is a “major quick-fix,” says Eric Herzik, an associate professor of political science and director of graduate studies. Herzik recently helped circulate a petition calling for more time to consider the proposed changes. Half the College of Arts & Science faculty signed the petition in less than a month. “[The changes] may damage community support while not fixing underlying problems. I’m also worried about long-term damage to the collegial atmosphere,” he says.

Sure, half the A&S faculty signed a petition to slow down the process, but that means half the faculty did not sign the petition, notes Biology Department Chairman Lee Weber. Weber, along with six other department chairs, met in late March to devise a plan for the creation of a College of Science & Mathematics.

The biology, chemistry, physics and psychology departments each get 95 percent of their money from external funding sources rather than from the state. Some of this external funding (also known as soft money) goes to a grant recipient who may rely on it completely for a salary. About a quarter goes back to the university, which gives some to the state and some to the college to be used as seed money for acquiring more outside grants.

The science chairs are ready to put this money to the best possible use, they say, recruiting high-end instructors, creating more needed lab space for research and competing for talented graduate-level students. Already, the amount of research money coming into the university has increased tenfold in the past decade or so. The Psychology Department, for example, brought in $271,000 in grants in 1993. Last year, it brought in $2.1 million.

Several of UNR’s science departments have received national rankings, including psychology, which landed near some prestigious universities like Notre Dame and Georgia Institute of Technology in a National Institute of Health listing for 2000. The science chairs are simply no longer content to wait for the state to come through with funding, as it seems the humanities are content to do.

“A lot of people think we’re all playing the same game,” Psychology Chairman Hayes says. “But we’re not. Science has stepped up, and we’re ready to run ahead. … Is Reno a ‘Harvard on the Truckee?’ No. But we’ve come a long way since the 1980s.”

As UNR’s reputation becomes more prestigious, all departments across the university will benefit, Hayes says.

“You explain to me how that [prestige] hurts someone in the Philosophy Department,” Hayes says. “It’s not going to hurt them. It’s going to help them.”

Herzik says the petition wasn’t intended to forestall all change. He’s concerned about the speed at which the decisions are being made and the implications of such change on teaching. President Lilley’s plan could go to the university’s board of regents for a vote this fall.

Some faculty members believe that the input they’ve been able to give so far has been superficial. Though each department was asked to submit a 10-page mission statement to the colleges, the colleges then condensed those documents, so the University Planning Committee didn’t get each entire document.

“My big fear is that at the end of the day they’ll say, ‘Here’s the reorganization,’ and we’ll feel we had no meaningful input,” Herzik says. Faculty members could resent this kind of thing for years to come.Also, when the bottom line turns to money, Herzik fears that teaching efficiency could be redefined to offering more 200-person lectures, more Web classes, fewer student advisors and more automated phone systems.

“People say, ‘See how much we’ve done with so little,’ “ Herzik says. “Yes, but what’s the quality? Where’s the faculty contact with students?

“Most people who get grants buy out of the teaching requirements and then the department hires a [part-time teacher]. Then, the guy you came to the unversity to study with isn’t even teaching. That’s the way it’s done."Interim Provost Frederick contends that the planning committee has gone out of its way to solicit advice, from asking for 1,000-word essays on various issues to maintaining an online bulletin board for posting concerns and questions about the plan.

“No one’s going to rush into breaking up a college without knowing where the resources will go or come from," Frederick says. "The bottom line is that we’re proceeding in as open a manner as we can, including as many voices as we can. … What we’re really trying to achieve is a better university."