Reorganizing, Not Reinventing

U. of Massachusetts at Amherst will reorganize to deal with budget problems, but chancellor decides against some major shifts in the interest of stability.

March 13, 2009

Chancellor Robert Holub announced a major reorganization of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Thursday, but his decision to leave some things just as they are may have the greatest impact.

Holub, whose institution is facing a $46 million deficit next year, laid out a plan Thursday that will merge two colleges into one, creating a central hub for various natural sciences departments and slicing administrative costs by an anticipated $1 million. He declined, however, to create a new College of Arts and Sciences, saying that the massive unit would dwarf the rest of the campus and create potential turf wars with other colleges and the central administration.

Arts and sciences colleges are the norm on many campuses, and a campus task force at Amherst noted that 75 percent of the public institutions within the prestigious Association of American Universities follow that model. But with its relatively small professional schools, Amherst is different, Holub said. Creating an arts and sciences college at the university would have placed about 650 of the 930 faculty members on campus in a single college. By concentrating nearly 70 percent of faculty in just the one college, Holub anticipated that the functions of administrators in the college and the responsibilities of the central administration might too closely overlap, leading to redundancies, confusion and even in-fighting.

“The built-in possibility for conflict scares me,” he said.

Holub also held off on creating a College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, a proposal that he said was “accompanied by much angst from some quarters.” Under the proposal, the university would have combined the existing Colleges of Humanities and Fine Arts and of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

However flawed it may be, there’s a school of thought in higher education that making bold moves all at once has a political benefit. Holub, however, resisted linking the humanities and social sciences, even though he still sees potential benefits.

“I didn’t do everything that I want to accomplish, but I did some of the things,” said Holub, who was appointed last May after serving as provost at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“You have to have faculty deliberating on these matters, and you have to have buy-in,” he added. “If you push something through that is against what the faculty are thinking, then it’s very difficult to make that work. … When these things are not discussed fully then the faculty make them not work. That’s something that you certainly don’t want. But you do have to take the lead on some of these things, and I’m trying to get out in front of them.”

The decisions Holub announced Thursday were based in part on the recommendations of a 16-member task force made up of mostly department chairs. Although he did not take all of their suggestions -- including the formation of a College of Arts and Sciences, which the panel supported -- Holub has generated some goodwill through a process of inclusion, according to Jane Fountain, who chaired the task force.

“We really support our chancellor here,” said Fountain, a professor of political science. “He’s new; he’s come into a terrible situation; we chose him because he has a great scholarly background as a researcher and a teacher."

"We are like other universities across the country," she added. "We’re in a very difficult situation and there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Hoping for Stimulus

The uncertainty at Amherst is compounded by the mystery that still surrounds the federal stimulus bill, the money from which has yet to reach colleges. The university has already put 91 non-tenure track faculty on notice that they may not be rehired next year. The advanced notices of non-reappointment are required under collective bargaining rules, but they do not necessarily mean the faculty won’t be rehired, according to Holub.

“Some of them will be kept no matter what,” he said. “Others will be hired back if we have stimulus money, and it may be the vast majority of them [are rehired] if we get stimulus money.”

The $46 million deficit Amherst faces next year will be addressed in part by a student fee increase that is expected to generate $20 million. The merger of 17 departments into a new as-yet-unnamed natural sciences college, along with other administrative cuts in the chancellor’s office, are expected to produce about $2 million in savings overall. That still leaves a $24 million hole, however, and Holub acknowledges more cuts or new revenue are the only way to fill it.

“We do still have significant things to think about,” he said, “but of course we’re thinking about the same things everyone else is thinking about.”

The creation of the natural sciences college has its own potential to generate revenue, Holub said. There are a number of state programs aimed at life sciences development, and having those programs now under one roof will help create cross-discipline research that can bring in more dollars, he said.

Samuel Black, head of the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, agreed that the merger has potential to generate research revenue. The cross-departmental cooperation, however, may depend on how the merger plays out. The existing Colleges of Natural Resources and the Environment, and of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, both now have their own deans. Under the merger, both colleges will cease to exist independently, and a new interim dean will have to be appointed. The shift has the potential to ruffle feathers, and the success of the new college depends on a smooth transition, Black said.

“I think it’s reasonable to accept that [the merger will bolster research],” he said, “assuming the merger goes through without hitches.”














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