Science Collections vs. Track and Field

Louisiana Monroe says it's getting rid of two major natural history collections to make way for a sports field. Outrage ensues.

March 30, 2017

Count flora and fauna -- at least on display in academe -- as the newest casualties of Louisiana’s higher education budget crisis. The University of Louisiana at Monroe recently said it could no longer house the major plant and fish collections in its Museum of Natural History, and science Twitter raged over a shared Facebook post from the museum saying that it had been given “48 hours to suggest an alternate location for the collections on campus.”

Source: Facebook

Some took the post to mean that the collections would be destroyed within hours -- which they won’t be. Facing backlash, the university allegedly asked the museum to clarify the situation in another Facebook post, which reads, in part, “State appropriations have been cut more than 50 percent since 2008 and [the university] has struggled to provide public services. … A 48-hour deadline was set only to find space on campus to relocate the collections. If no space is found, the collections need to be donated to other institutions.”

Still, the new post reads, the collections need to be disposed of if no new homes are found -- to meet construction deadlines for the renovation of the Brown Stadium for track and field.

You can probably imagine some of the public reaction to a university ditching academic collections for another sports facility. But if you can't, here are some examples.

Thomas Sasek, associate professor of biology and curator of the R. Dale Thomas plant collection, said in an interview that he wrote both Facebook posts after hearing the collections news from administrators within the College of Arts, Education and Sciences, which manages the museum. He said the collections are currently housed in the Brown stadium due to a lack of space, and that their use has declined over the years as faculty and student interest in taxonomy and natural history has given way to all things molecular.

Yet the herbarium in particular has historical and scientific relevance, he said, in that it includes examples of some 99 percent of all the plants in Louisiana and is bigger than all other plant collections in the state combined. Monroe is deep in the bayou, which has long been a part of the biology department’s identity.

“These two collections were each started by one person, from nothing, and built up to major collections -- the biggest collections [of their kind] in the South. They’re very complete.”

Sasek has painstakingly helped to digitize the herbarium within the last few years. Whether everyday use of the specimens might increase were they more accessible -- housed in the actual museum instead of at the edge of campus in the stadium -- seemed like a “chicken or egg thing," he said.

As such questions go, it doesn’t look like he’ll get the answer. Eric A. Pani, vice president for academic affairs and the administrative lead on the collections transfer, said in a statement released to a local newspaper that the collections will hopefully be donated somewhere by mid-July.

“Unfortunately, the fiscal situation facing the university over the years requires us to make choices like this,” Pani said. “We can no longer afford to store the collections and provide all of the public services we have in the past.”

Pani told Inside Higher Ed late Wednesday that the "research collections of plants, fish, amphibians and reptiles have not been used by our students and faculty much in the last few years, except for instructional purposes. Research use has largely been confined to people outside [Monroe] from loans we have made to them and visits they have made here. However, we have still had to maintain the collection."

Thus, he said via email, "I have concluded that the scientific integrity of the museum’s research collection will be better preserved at another institution that has the resources needed to house and care for it adequately. While this decision in not my ideal, it makes the most sense for preserving this important resource. The [university] will do everything in its power to find the right fit for the collection, which we hope will be in Louisiana or at least in the southeastern U.S."

Monroe has suggested that a classroom-sized sample of the collection remain on campus for teaching needs.

Pani has also said that renovations and improvements to Brown Stadium will begin this summer. “The work will raise the track to sanctioned status, allowing meets to be held there and other schools to host track and field competitions,” he told the newspaper. “Thus, it will provide an economic development boost for the region.”

Sasek said he’s received many offers of support and interest in the collections in the past few days, and that they will not be discarded. “We’re very proud the collection and hate to give it up, but if it goes someplace where it’s used more, that’s perfectly reasonable.”

Scott H. Harris, director of the James Monroe Museum at the University of Mary Washington and southeast regional representative for the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, said divesting collections always raises concerns over responsibilities to any donors and “the potential loss of the collection to the public.”

But academic museums face many of the same financial pressures as nonacademic ones, such as generating sufficient operating income, securing funding for capital improvements and managing costs, Harris said. And with respect to fund-raising, academic museums usually operate within the framework of their parent institution's development program, which “can be challenging if the museum is not one of the university's primary fund-raising goals.”

For museums within public universities in particular, Harris said, cuts to state funding are a major concern. That’s true in his state, Virginia, he added, all the way to Louisiana, which has seen some of the nation’s deepest cuts to higher education.

The picture only gets worse under the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget, Harris said, which seeks to reduce or eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“If any or all of this occurs,” he said, “it will be devastating to all museums, including academic ones.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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