Staffers wary of lost character

Faculty and staff expressed concerns during listening sessions this week.

by Roy Aker

As the merger of two University of Minnesota colleges undergoes consideration, some faculty and staff are concerned about preserving their colleges’ identities.

A task force heard faculty and staff members’ reactions at listening sessions Monday and Tuesday to the potential merger of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and the College of Biological Sciences.

Some CFANS faculty said a merger would need to maintain connections with external stakeholders like agricultural companies, and some CBS faculty said they’d want to maintain the college’s higher admissions standards. People from both colleges also questioned the University’s reasoning behind the merger talks.

CFANS’ Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology professor Ray Newman said his department has built a strong rapport with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources,  which he said would need to continue in a new college.

CBS professor Carrie Wilmot said the college could benefit from the relationships CFANS has with external entities.

“CFANS has a very strong outreach, so CBS could potentially benefit from understanding that better and perhaps create better dialogue and get out there more in the state,” she said.

Because the colleges have different admissions standards, Newman said, combining the two into a single college would require a careful approach. For admissions, the merger would need to either combine both strategies or keep them separate.

In CFANS, 22.6 percent of new freshmen this fall were in the top 5 percent of their high school class. CBS had more than double that number at 55 percent.

“Why would we want to admit these students that are not as academically accomplished as the ones that typically come in through CBS?” said Jim Cotner, a professor in CBS’ Ecology, Evolution and Behavior department.

Faculty members also discussed whether a larger, combined college would be better for students. If CFANS and CBS merged into a single college, it would be the University’s third-largest undergraduate college, according to fall 2013 enrollment data.

Maggie Kubak, a Career and Internship Services coordinator, said smaller colleges can facilitate better relationships between faculty and students.

“They feel more a part of a community oftentimes,” she said.

Kubak said the University needs to be careful if it opts to merge the colleges.

If the merger is timely and stakeholders feel heard and respected, she said, the outside community will be excited about it. But if it’s a rocky transition, she said, perception could go the other way.

The task force has scheduled additional listening sessions this month for staff members, external stakeholders and Extension faculty and staff.

“It’s an interesting, open question, and we’ll see where it goes,” Newman said of the merger talks.

Questioning merger motives

At the listening sessions, multiple faculty and staff members raised questions about why the University is considering a merger, and some asked whether the work required to merge is worth it.

Cotner said he’s noticed faculty raising issues that could be fixed without a merger.

“There are a lot of things we could do without wholesale merging of colleges that didn’t necessarily have to be quite as disruptive,” he said. “My feeling is that there’s faculty in general that have their guard up.” 

Newman said some CFANS faculty members question the University’s motives for the merger.

If the University chooses to merge, he said, it must consider all pros and cons.

“If it’s really going to build up the biological sciences, that’s good, but then you need to think what that’s going to do to the economics and social science aspects of CFANS,” he said.

The task force couldn’t comment on the ongoing listening sessions because they aren’t complete and the panel must remain impartial.

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson outlined why the University is considering a merger in a September news release.

“The consideration of such a college is driven principally by the direction of the life sciences, especially around genomics, and trends in research and higher education in agriculture, biological and natural resource sciences,” she said in the release.