Following more than a year of discussion and revision, President Edna Szymanski sent her tentative decisions to faculty and staff last Monday. She took feedback until Friday afternoon and is expected to release her final decision by the end of the month.
Among many changes, the tentative plan divides the sciences, which are now all housed within the College of Social and Natural Sciences, into two colleges, a new College of Science, Health and the Environment and a new College of Critical Thinking and Integrative Studies. It also breaks up the longstanding placement of mass communications within the present-day College of Business and Industry, sending the department to the new College of Arts, Media and Communication.
Denise Gorsline, associate vice president for academic planning, said besides hiring a new dean, realignment will not affect university employment; nor will it physically change where departments are located.
She added that although the university is interested in reversing declining enrollment, the plan isn’t marketing driven, but rather driven by students’ needs and workforce demands.
“We’re trying to really make the connection that your knowledge and abilities in liberal arts are a big part of what determines your long-term career,” she said. “(We’re) trying to put to bed the question of ‘why do I have to take these classes anyway.’”
In a February interview, Szymanksi also stressed career preparation.
“If you’re going to get a job it will be far better to go to a college where students and faculty interact across disciplines in ways that are meaningful …,” she said. “(Realignment) is actually very exciting.”
A deliberative process
Formed in February 2012, the Task Force on Academic Realignment – made up of Provost Anne Blackhurst, two deans and nine faculty members – met every few weeks for nearly a year, looking at other universities’ structures and discussing many different models. Its meetings were not public, but it did solicit feedback through the provost’s office, the faculty senate and at town hall meetings.
The task force members said they worked to create the most appropriate alignment for each department and also tried to ensure properly distributed workload among deans.
Members wrapped up their work at the end of last semester, and then the Academic Affairs Council, made up of the provost, the two associate vice presidents and all five deans made revisions, which they released in February.
Whereas the task force had kept most of the sciences together, in a February 11 letter, the council recommended placing most of the social sciences into a College of Global, Cultural and Public Affairs.
It also explained that it added nursing to the name of a “much more focused” College of Science, Health and Nursing to take “strategic advantage of one of the largest and fastest growing occupational sectors in the Twin Cities metro area and the Fargo- Moorhead metro area.”
But when Szymanski – who makes the final decision – released her tentative recommendations on Monday, the name reverted to College of Science, Health and the Environment.
She kept all but one of the council’s recommended department placements, gave Gorsline’s job more responsibilities and, perhaps most controversially, renamed the College of Global, Cultural and Public Affairs in order to reflect “the key role of the College and its programs in our students’ development of analytical, problem solving, creativity and critical thinking skills.”
Channeling many of his colleagues sentiments, former task force member Matthew Craig, an astronomy and physics professor, referred to the College of Critical Thinking and Integrative Studies as the “college of currently trendy academic buzzwords.”
The Advocate spoke to a couple dozen professors from a broad range of university departments. Their reactions ranged from excitement and optimism to indifference and skepticism.
Most of the professors didn’t feel comfortable going on the record with their v i e w s because they said they feared being seen as speaking for their departments while others were willing as long as it was clear they were conveying personal thoughts not others’.
Political science professor Andrew Conteh said he’s not seen such a complete reorganization during his nearly 30 years at MSUM.
Just like a river, he said, “academia should be seen as a constantly changing phenomenon” and we need to change with the times.
“You have to try (realignment) and see,” he said. “We should not just shoot it down upon arrival … Unless you are willing to accept changes, the changes will swallow you.”
Downstairs, on MacLean’s second floor, mass communications professor Mark Strand didn’t criticize the plan on its merits, but noted restructuring is “the favorite indoor sport of academics.”
His colleague, mass communications department chairman CT Hanson, said most faculty in his department support realignment, some envisioning collaborations of public relations and music industry or communications studies and advertising.
Hanson noted – and his general notion was repeated in several departments across campus – that although most faculty members do not mind the change, mass communications is content where it is now.
Interim director of women’s and gender studies Sherry Short said she doesn’t like the name of her new college, the College of Critical Thinking and Integrative Studies, but in general, is pleased with the plan.
“At first I think the potential for change was scary,” Short said. “But now that change is here, I think there’s a lot less anxiety about completely revamping the structure of the university.”
Craig, the astronomy and physics professor, said he supported keeping the sciences together because MSUM is one of very few schools to have that sort of structure.
“I don’t see what the big payoff with the new structure is,” he said. “It will cause disruption and I’m not fully on board with why it has to be done at this very moment.”
When it comes down to it, Craig said, most students don’t identify by what college they are in anyway.
“Once you’re on campus, you ask them what college they go to and they will tell you ‘MSUM,’” he said.
Craig’s hypothesis seems to have merit. Most s t u d e n t s interviewed didn’t know m u c h , if anything, about academic realignment and those who did, either hadn’t formed an opinion or just didn’t care.
Accounting senior Rose Wietzema said MSUM is doing very well and doesn’t need drastic change.
“I could see if we had problems, but there are no real problems,” she said.
But Student Senate president Russel Ferguson said he thinks the plan is good because it will “align our colleges more with the business world.”
He said administrators considered student leaders’ input every step of the way.
“There is a general student influence on it,” Ferguson said. “They constantly talked to us about it.”
Gorsline said the 2013-14 academic year will be focused on the logistics of realignment – recruitment materials and website development, for example – but administrators will also start creating an academic master plan to turn structural changes into longer-term instructional changes (i.e. new courses, new majors and minors).
One such change the task force envisioned is the creation of interdisciplinary “centers” within each college. Under the plan, the “centers” would eventually grant minors and certificates. They would bring together students from a variety of departments and could evolve with changing workforce needs without, as Gorsline put it, “mess(ing) with the permanent organization of the university.”
“I think some of the most interesting collaborations are cross-departmental, not interdepartmental,” she said.
Some examples the task force proposed include a Center for Global Health Care Leadership and a Center for Leadership and Social Change.
Communication studies professor Rebecca Gardner is among several professors who enthusiastically support these ideas.
“The college’s intention to create collaborative ‘centers’ will help us to ensure this is not just a change in name only,” she said.
Gorsline stressed the long-term nature of such a thorough reorganization.
“We’re really committed to making this work,” she said. “Our work’s not done. It’s just getting started.”
BY BRYCE HAUGEN