How one program fought for its own survival and won
by Eric Betterton, professor
Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona
This saga began nearly three years ago, in October 2001, when the administration at the University of Arizona (UA) unexpectedly announced that because of state-imposed budget cuts and "higher programmatic priorities," they could no longer continue to support the Department of Atmospheric Sciences (ATMO) and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP). ATMO/IAP faculty were given three options:
- merge collectively with a larger department
- disperse individually or in small groups to several departments across campus, or
- remain as a small unit with the understanding that faculty lost through normal attrition would not be replaced in the future.
None of these options was attractive, and all had the potential to quickly undermine the graduate program—the heart of ATMO/IAP, with its 40-year history of excellence and its role as one of the founding members of UCAR.
By UA's own reckoning, external funding for research in ATMO/IAP ranked among the top 25% of all programs in the UA College of Science, so our initial reaction was one of utter disbelief. The UA administration justified the proposed elimination on the basis of "subcritical mass," and it took time for us to realize that size does matter: being small (six faculty) at a time of draconian budget cuts makes a program extremely vulnerable.
The story has a happy ending, however. By seeking creative new ways to grow, by forging strategic alliances, and by explaining the fundamental importance of our intellectual discipline, ATMO/IAP was ultimately spared. From other UA departments, we recruited eight joint faculty (with voting privileges) who are now part of the intellectual life of ATMO/IAP. With the added clout of these faculty, spread across the campus and all lobbying on our behalf, we secured funding for three to four additional faculty positions soon to be advertised. Thus, instead of being eliminated, ATMO/IAP will have more than doubled in size (counting our new joint faculty).
At about the time the elimination was first proposed, UA was undergoing a self-assessment to determine how several thematic enterprises (including earth science and environmental programs, or ESEP) that are widely distributed across many colleges and departments might be better organized. By actively and constructively participating in this review, and by inviting key faculty in other departments to participate in ATMO/IAP (with full voting privileges), we were able to add important perspective on the priorities and concerns of UA administrators. We were also able to reiterate the inherent importance of the atmospheric sciences and their links to other fields, things we had naively thought were self-evident with repeated headlines about global climate change and the ozone hole.
Finally, meetings between UCAR president Rick Anthes and UA administrators were a key turning point in the process that, in April 2004, elicited the response from administrators that we had all waited so long to hear: "They made the case. We will preserve Atmospheric Sciences" [Arizona Daily Wildcat, 1 April 2004].
Lessons worth noting
In hindsight, we believe our experience might be useful for other small departments. For many years, faculty in ATMO/IAP thought the importance of the atmospheric sciences and the potential for externally funded research were obvious and needed no further explanation. Clearly, this was not the case at UA; in fact, it was the ESEP review process that largely made the case for us. This study identified seven crosscutting thematic areas where investment in new faculty and the associated resources were expected to have the greatest impact:
- water sustainability
- Earth surface processes, natural resources, and hazards
- hydrometeorology and climate
- biogeochemistry and ecosystem dynamics
- environment and society
- environment and health
- engineering for a sustainable environment
It quickly became clear that the atmospheric sciences play a critical role in all these areas.
A regrettable casualty of this reorganization has been the loss of our undergraduate program, which was terminated because it consumed a disproportionately large amount of time of the few remaining faculty. Instead, ATMO/IAP has returned to its roots and again become a graduate-only program, although it does continue to offer some very popular courses for undergraduates in other departments.
There are lessons in our experience for both administrators and faculty. Administrators should be more careful and consider the hidden costs of reorganization and/or elimination before embarking on such efforts. What tends to be forgotten is the tremendous drain in research productivity and morale, not only for the faculty but also for the staff, students, and the families of all involved. For two long years, ATMO/IAP had focused almost exclusively on survival instead of advancing our science and the reputation of UA. The effects can hardly be underestimated.
Our faculty had never experienced such a situation, and initially there seemed to be only three unpleasant options. But over time, ATMO/IAP initiated a number of serious and fruitful meetings with administrators and colleagues across the UA campus; we reexamined the mission of ATMO/IAP; and we learned to actively seek alliances with other programs across campus. We also learned that the importance of the atmospheric sciences for other programs in the Earth and environmental sciences is not self-evident. Perhaps most importantly, we were able to remain courteous (well, nearly always) in these emotionally charged times.