Faculty, Students Say NDSU Failed Them With its Budget-Cutting Geology Program ‘Teach Out’

FARGO — Students say a pledge from North Dakota State University to allow them to complete their studies in a discontinued program is falling far short of expectations.

In addition, they and faculty question cuts to the science program to begin with, saying the move is shortsighted and goes against the standards of a land grant institution.

Shelby Tooz, 20, of Moorhead, declared geology her major just days before talk emerged of the program being in danger, and she spent the following weeks and months in limbo.

“I felt very kind of betrayed by a university that I grew up liking. Now when I think of NDSU I just think… They’ll take what you like and rub it in the dirt,” Tooz said.

She’s since transferred to a geology program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

NDSU President David Cook and then-interim Provost David Bertolini warned of likely budget cuts last fall, and in January of this year outlined steps to deal with $7.6 million in funding reductions for the 2023-2025 budget.

The NDSU Transform initiative included reducing the number of academic colleges, cutting more than two dozen full-time positions and eliminating 24 degree programs while offering “teach outs.”

The Department of Earth, Environmental, and Geospatial Sciences (EEGS) was one of those targeted for a teach out, meaning current students could finish those programs in jeopardy but no new students could enroll.

“No rug is going to be pulled out from underneath them,” Cook said last fall.

Students and faculty maintain the rug has indeed been yanked out, with little support.

Jessie Rock, an NDSU geology lecturer who has taught a popular lab for 13 years, said too many faculty have been let go to conduct a proper teach out.

She’s one of several geosciences faculty members whose positions will be terminated as of May 2024; others, including paleontologist Lydia Tackett, accepted buyouts and left immediately.

Rock said come spring, 22 geology majors will take their upper level courses at Minnesota State University Moorhead through the tri-college system because NDSU no longer has that capacity.

“They claim to be student-focused, but it feels like they’re just checking boxes and shoving them out the door,” she said.

No matter their year in school, Rock said the students must take their higher-level, junior and senior seminar courses during a single semester.

Joe Allen, a non-traditional student at age 40, said he and his wife moved out of state so he could pursue a geology degree due to problems with the NDSU teach out.

“It felt like a platitude. It felt like that they were doing it because they had to to avoid a lawsuit,” he said.

The Forum requested an interview with an NDSU administrator to address the teach out issues.

Instead, the university provided a statement from Kimberly Wallin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which read, in part:

“We recognize this change may be difficult, and we care deeply about all of our students. NDSU has assigned each student a professional advisor to meet with them individually and create a plan to complete their degree.”

History of geology

Geoscience programs have a long history at North Dakota State University.

The school offered its first geology course in 1894, a few years after its predecessor, the North Dakota Agricultural College, was established.

The school’s first president, Horace Stockbridge, was a geologist.

Geology was eliminated three times previously, in 1915, 1932 and 1954, according to a history timeline compiled by professor emeritus Don Schwert.

Each time, it was resurrected after reasserting its value to the university.

One reason stated for cutting geology this time was that it’s a high cost, low enrollment major.

Rock said that might have been true when the program was located in the crumbling basement of Stevens Hall, but the tide was turning after it moved into the brand new Sugihara Hall.

Looking at the trajectory, geology enrollment could have tripled in another year, she said.

Rock said she thinks the program will inevitably reopen after those who chose to cut it move on and others come in to “put the pieces back together.”

“I think they’re going to realize that this is really important. This is the planet we live on and having an understanding of that is important for everyone in every discipline,” she said.

Rock said geology graduates everywhere should have no problem finding jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there will be a deficit of approximately 118,000 geoscience positions in the U.S. in six years, with demand growing and geoscientists retiring.

Geologists are employed by city, county and state governments in North Dakota and beyond, and in the private sector, in the fields of mining, energy, oil and gas.

Environmental geologists are also critical, because they provide expertise needed when contaminants enter sediments and groundwater.

Rock said geology faculty weren’t consulted about which cuts in the department made the most sense, if any.

Under NDSU Transform, administrators said they wanted to phase out older programs in favor of data science offerings.

Rock said among those targeted initially included courses involving GIS, or geographic information systems, one of the most powerful data science tools of the 21st century.

Once administrators realized how short sighted that decision was, they walked it back, she said.

With Rock’s termination, administrators also didn’t prioritize Earth Science Education majors, she said, critical at a time of dwindling resources, changing climate and water shortages.

She recently learned a graduate student will take over some of her labs after she’s gone, likely a move made after administrators realized those education majors need the course to graduate.

‘Helpless and lost’

Joe Allen, a West Fargo resident for 27 years, has a West Fargo zip code tattoo on his arm; his wife grew up in this area and still has many family members here.

But the couple and their two young children now live in Carbondale, Illinois, where Allen studies geology at Southern Illinois University following the fallout at NDSU.

With the move, he had to leave behind around $20,000 in scholarships.

Allen came late to college after giving up a job climbing cell towers due to health issues. He was found to have a congenital heart defect and underwent surgery last spring.

Before leaving NDSU, he was given the Green Hammer scholarship awarded to the school’s outstanding first-year geology major.

It may make sense for people who are well into their degree to stay and run it out, but as a freshman, it wasn’t a viable option for Allen.

“I realized that I was not going to have access or time in any kind of research project that was meaningful, and so getting a degree under those conditions felt empty,” he said.

Zoe Muccatira, 20, from Hoople, North Dakota, is one who is staying put at NDSU.

A third year geology major, she said she would have considered transferring to MSUM to finish her degree if she weren’t also seeking a major in biology.

“It just makes me feel sad that they don’t believe in my field and what my classmates are working towards when we work so hard,” she said.

For Tooz, leaving NDSU was tough because she felt a true sense of belonging in the geology program.

“It was being taken away from me and there was nothing I could do. And I just felt helpless and lost,” she said.

Had she stayed, Tooz could have made it through college without taking out any loans.

She said that won’t be possible now because UMD is more costly and she’s not saving money living at home, like she did while attending NDSU.

A ‘poor method of leadership’

The closing out of geosciences programs at NDSU also uprooted faculty.

Tackett said administrators first indicated the termination was highly unlikely but if it did happen, there would be at least a three-year phase out.

When she heard NDSU offered the bare minimum, one-year contract required by law for tenured faculty, she was dismayed.

“I think it’s a very poor method of leadership,” Tackett said.

Instead, she and a handful of others accepted a buy-out offer of one year’s salary and benefits. In exchange, they relinquished any future legal claims against the university.

Tackett is now a visiting professor at University of Missouri.

There, she’s working with research specimens recently brought back from New Zealand and finishing out a five year National Science Foundation career grant.

The unspent part of that grant went with her, a portion of which would have gone to NDSU, she said.

Kenneth Lepper, whose geology position will end in May, tells people he’s been “Transform-ed” out of a job, a reference to the budget-cutting initiative.

He said from his view, decisions have been made as if NDSU were a corporate structure, not a university.

“In many cases they haven’t even thought about how these decisions will play out for even a few months, let alone multiple years,” Lepper said.

In a state like North Dakota, where revenue comes from geologic resources and agriculture, it makes no sense to terminate geology programs, he said.

With Rock’s position also ending next spring, she’s picked up teaching jobs at MSUM and Concordia, but neither offers benefits.

She’s sad and hurt to leave a job she loves.

“I love so many people here, but at the same time the experiences that I’ve seen in the past months have been shocking to me,” she said.

Tackett said she’s concerned for her friends and colleagues who remain.

She fears dropping a STEM program like geology will have a negative impact on NDSU’s status as an R-1, high activity research university.

“I think any faculty there who are feeling like they have options to leave are seriously thinking about it,” she said.

Source : Inforum


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