On April 11, the University of Tulsa announced an alignment – a “Reimagining,” it was called – of its curriculum and identity. It is a plan that will cut its majors by more than 40 percent, from 196 to 112. These cuts will hit the humanities the hardest – and these get the lion’s share of the media coverage – but the reductions in programs and degrees are not just limited to theater, music, philosophy and foreign languages. The school’s Department of Geosciences will also be hobbled when the plan takes effect in four to five years.
“A real disappointment for our department would be the loss of our BS and MS geophysics degrees. A few years back, we believed that offering geophysics degrees would provide an important distinction, not just for our department, but also for CENS (petroleum engineering undergraduate and graduates enrolled in geophysics classes) and for TU.”
That’s Dennis R. Kerr, AAPG Member and associate professor of geosciences and chair of TU’s Department of Geosciences, talking about the future of his department, which will combine all physical sciences and math into a single college unit to be named “Physical Sciences.”
Specifically, the university is keeping its bachelor of science in general studies in the geosciences, as well as its master of science in geosciences (though reduced to 12 months), while cutting the geology bachelor of arts, the bachelor of arts in Earth and environmental sciences; geophysics BSGS, biogeosciences BSGS, master of science in geophysics and the geosciences doctoral program.
When asked if there was any way to spin the university’s decision other than a de-emphasizing of the geosciences, Kerr said he could perhaps once make the case, but not any longer.
“TU promotes the institution for its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education excellence. This claim was certainly defensible for TU before the 4/11 rollout of the plan,” Kerr said.
But, after calling the announcement a “trauma,” he said the school’s claim is now “highly doubtful.”
At a student forum led by University of Tulsa President Gerard Clancy, its Provost Janet Levit and the Provost’s Program Review Committee Chairman Tracy Manley, Levit said, “The University of Tulsa is a high-touch undergraduate institution that provides all students with a firm grounding in critical and creative thinking, and that is STEM-heavy with a professional, practical focus.”
The Indispensable Role of Graduate Students
Kerr said the university doesn’t get it.
“The administration does not understand, does not appreciate the importance of graduate students in a holistic STEM education,” he said.
And this is because, he said, in the geosciences, as well as other sciences, graduate and undergraduate students are amalgamated in many of their educational experiences, as well as their professional and personal development – a distinct advantage offered by the TU geosciences program. Kerr doesn’t see how this turns out well.
“After the April 11 announcements, I called for an all-department informational meeting. Among the many questions raised, the undergraduate students were asked to express the value graduate students played in their educational, research and professional development. The undergraduate students uniformly replied: invaluable, important, enriching,” he explained.
One student and AAPG student member, Jonathan Major, who came from Houston where he had been working in environmental chemistry labs, said he believes that what is happening at Tulsa is purely business-driven.
“TU relies on tuition and donations for funding and due to the recession in the petroleum industry, both of those were decreasing. But this complete rebranding that abandons graduate education just really feels like they’re making a purely business decision when there is so much more than business involved in the impact a university has on the community,” he said.
Layne Farr, who came to the university with a bachelor of science in geology from Texas A&M University, said that, on paper, nothing much will change for him, but it’s not the paper he’s worried about.
“Due to delayed implementation of the changes over the course of a few years, as a current first-year master’s student in geology engaging in research and a thesis, I am allowed to finish my degree and the quality of my education will not be hindered,” he said.
That’s the easy part.
This isn’t: “My future worries,” said Farr, “include what affect the public perception of TU in the scientific community (particularly the oil and gas community) will have on the merit of my degree. I am scheduled to graduate in one year. As the changes are implemented over the next few years the scientific faculty will leave or retire … and the quality of science education at TU will be dramatically hindered for a myriad of additional reasons including: unreasonable teaching burdens on faculty to compensate 12 month MS degree, narrowing breadth of geoscience education by completely cutting geophysics from the institution, etc.”
Annie Crawford, the Geo Club treasurer, who came to the university for the biogeosciences program (one of the programs being cut), said she wouldn’t have even considered attending the University of Tulsa had these new protocols been in place.
“There is a year-long delay between beginning to work for TU and getting the full tuition benefit, so if I had started working even a few days after the fall 2018 semester started, I would be out of luck for pursuing my chosen degree path,” she said.
Concerns about Transparency
A bit inside baseball, perhaps, but one of the things bothering both the students and faculty is the notion of transparency.
“There wasn’t any,” said Kerr.
TU President Clancy, in the University’s “Foundations and Starting Assumptions” document supporting the “Reimagining,” said that the processes and recommendations adopted by the PPRC were “faculty-led … and these changes are unequivocally endorsed by all who have received them and support, fundamentally, who we are.”
Kerr wants to see that data.
“I urge anyone, including the press media, who is truly interested in this issue to seek out factual information from others in the TU community regarding these claims,” he said.
At the aforementioned forum, when a student asked the panel whether the administration would be wiling to post online the data used to justify the changes being proposed, Levit responded, “No, we’re not going to put it online.”
Clancy added, “It wouldn’t be wise to have it all over.”
Instead, students and faculty were told they could go to the provost’s office and read it there.
The EXPLORER reached out to Clancy, Levit and Manley to address the concerns raised by Kerr and some of the students.
Clancy’s office responded, “I think most of the questions you pose can be answered by reading through the info at utulsa.edu/truecommitment and FAQs at utulsa.edu/truecommitment/faq/. There is a lot of misinformation and speculation floating around, especially on social media, so I would be happy to fact-check anything that might raise an eyebrow.”
Value and Perception
Another issue that concerns Kerr is the state of mind of his students – both currently enrolled and those considering the university.
“Geosciences graduate students, and senior and junior students will be able to complete their degree programs,” he said – and the university has assured students that those enrolled in programs about to be gutted can finish their degrees.
But Kerr said his students are, echoing Layne Farr’s comments, concerned about the intangibles.
“They do express concern over the perceived value of their TU geosciences degree,” he said.
Is this a trend?
Tough to say. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job outlook for geoscientists is projected to grow 14 percent through 2026, so TU is not doing this in anticipation of fewer industry jobs; nor, it insists, is it cutting departments, including geology, because of budgetary concerns. Nationwide, it seems that where universities are cutting, reorganizing, or merging, the geosciences are not spared, but they’re not targeted, either, unlike liberal arts.
Which doesn’t help those Tulsa students who are facing uncertain futures. These are still individual stories.
“After the April 11 morning announcement of the plan,” Kerr mentioned, “the TU admissions office sent emails to all admitted freshman students of the degree programs scheduled for termination. It does not take too much of an imagination to see the impact these messages might have on present recruitment efforts.”