Friday, April 12, 2024

UNCW looks to divide arts and sciences, faculty cautious of consequences

The UNCW faculty senate met on Tuesday to discuss the implications of dividing the College of Art and Sciences into two colleges. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

WILMINGTON — UNCW’s largest college is going through a divorce. 

Come July 2023, the College of Arts and Sciences is set to split in two — one college for science, technology, engineering and math fields, the other for arts, humanities and social sciences.

A change to the College of Arts and Sciences structure could have far-reaching implications. It will impact educational programs offered by the university — affecting the skillsets with which graduates enter the workforce — along with community engagement to surrounding areas. 

With UNCW’s recent designation as a high research activity, or R2, university, the realignment could help expand the capacity of research programs. To be considered an R2 high-research activity institution, the university must have awarded at least 20 research or scholarship doctoral degrees and had at least $5 million in total research expenditures per year.

Dividing the programs into two colleges — under two deans with more time to dedicate to each program — could promote the expansion of research initiatives at UNCW. However, some faculty are concerned more opportunities and funding may be funneled to the STEM college, putting the arts on the back burner. 

Among requests sent to 24 professors at UNCW, Department of Communication Studies Chair Rick Olsen was the only arts and humanities professor to respond. He contextualized the tension surrounding this issue. 

“I think the pressure that is being put on the administration is, ‘Please do R2 and this college restructuring in a way that is humane for the people that are going to participate,’” he said.  

University leadership claims no programs will be left behind. 

Leading the charge to create two new colleges has been Provost James Winebrake, who said CAS’s sheer size is problematic. It has more than double the students of the three other colleges on campus in students and employees. 

Winebrake claims dividing CAS will expand the capacity of college leadership and allow each program more representation among donors and resources. He added it will also form a better sense of community for both STEM and the arts, humanities and social sciences.

“It’s about looking at new opportunities; it’s about solving problems,” Winebrake said. “I think there are great opportunities for UNCW to advance the work we do, the work the faculty do, and the impact that we have on the community in positive ways. There’s an opportunity to expand that footprint, and this will allow us to do that.”

(Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

First steps

The topic of splitting the college, which was formed in 1979, has been on the table for more than a decade.

The College of Arts and Sciences is made up of 5,800 students and 800 faculty and staff. Its dean oversees the most programs — 43 undergraduate degrees, 60 minors, 12 pre-professional programs, 25 master’s degrees and three doctoral programs, plus the Gender Studies and Research Center. CAS’s programs contribute to 227,000 credit hours per academic year, comprising 65% of all hours awarded.

“It’s one of the largest colleges I’ve ever seen,” said Johan Hattingh, chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. He has worked at UNCW since 2020, but also taught at Clemson, Georgia State, and most recently, East Carolina University. 

Winebrake, who moved into his position as provost in 2020, said CAS’s size was discussed many times throughout his first semester at UNCW. This prompted him to charge the interim CAS dean at the time, Rich Ogle, with exploring options for restructuring. 

Ogle — who left in June 2021 after accepting a position at California State University — created the CAS Organization Committee with eight other college stakeholders to analyze four structure scenarios: no change, a divisional method within CAS, two colleges, and multiple colleges. The committee gained input in early 2021 through a survey completed by 17 department chairs and directors. 

The report was presented to the provost in March 2021. It states the “majority of voices expressed no desire to significantly change the structure of CAS,” proving the college’s large size is not necessarily an indicator of dysfunction. 

Olsen, also a member of the CAS Organization Committee, said he was originally opposed to the idea. 

“To be honest, I was an early detractor because of the administrative overhead,” he said. “But as I looked at the models, and I looked at the data, and our own internal leadership challenges, the way the college has grown, especially in grad programs and specialized programs — I’ve landed on maybe it’s time to do something.” 

Part of that data came from examining UNCW’s peer universities, which include UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, East Carolina University, and North Carolina A&T. Among these other R2 universities, UNCW’s College of Arts and Sciences is an anomaly. 

Each of the other schools has a College of Arts and Sciences, but with a smaller number of departments than UNCW. However, the schools also have other colleges dedicated to both science and the arts. For example, UNC Greensboro houses a College of Visual and Performing Arts and a School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, along with its College of Arts and Sciences. 

Restructuring UNCW’s CAS under the current plan would still be a standout compared to peer institutions; none group all the arts and all the sciences into two colleges. However, a similar structure is not unheard of; both Grand Canyon University and The University of Tennessee made changes to their CAS in recent years.

Other universities have similar breakaway schools for business, education and health sciences like UNCW’s three other colleges — the Watson College of Education, Cameron School of Business, College of Health and Human Services. Restructuring CAS would bring the two colleges to a better numerical balance. The colleges have faculty ratios of 61, 42, and 146, respectively, while CAS has 441 faculty members. It also has three times as many direct reports, 32, to its dean, whereas the other colleges only have 10 or 11. 

The high number of direct reports and a wide array of disciplines can put a strain on CAS’s interim dean Michelle Scatton-Tessier, who was unavailable for an interview. She must possess the knowledge and time to advocate for donations, organize fundraising and manage the activity of all 25 of the college’s departments. 

Winebrake clarified the regrouping was not a reflection of any dean’s leadership; he said she has done tremendous work leading the college. 

Robert Burrus, dean of the Cameron School of Business, told Port City Daily he was impressed with the leadership of CAS for successfully representing so many different fields. 

“But it’s a lot of heavy lifting to try to figure out what all the specific needs are that you can take and move to donors,” Burrus said. “A lot of the donors just think they want to help out, and you got to be very specific about how they could do that.”

(Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Gaining attention 

A few months after the committee’s initial report was submitted, a faction representing a few CAS departments raised their voices to advocate for a new college. They indicated they didn’t feel supported by the current model. 

Leaders of the computer science, mathematics and statistics, data science, physics and engineering programs submitted a proposal for a College of Computing and Engineering. In the memo, faculty members stated “too many” direct reports, program growth, and the need for a larger collective voice and campus visibility justified a new college. 

“CEE has common academic goals and computational infrastructure requirements that are not adequately supported in the current CAS organizational model,” the memo states.

Physics professor Liping Gan concurred with its assessment.

“Most of the college committee members were dominated by faculties from arts, humanities, social sciences for the past many years,” she said. “Our voices have been buried in a huge background.”

In response to the memo, Winebrake formed a task force in January 2022 to explore a separate college for programs that asked for it. The group found that a college makeup with only those departments may be too narrow a focus. 

Winebrake charged a new committee — the CAS Leadership Council, made up of each department chair — to construct two new colleges. The goal was to develop a framework for implementing the transition.

College one would consist of anthropology, art and art history, communication studies, creative writing, English, film studies, history, international studies, music, philosophy and religion, public and international affairs, sociology and criminology, theatre, world languages and cultures, the Gender Studies and Research Center, graduate liberal studies 

College two would consist of biology and marine biology, chemistry and biochemistry, computer science, earth and ocean sciences, environmental studies, mathematics and statistics, physics and physical oceanography (including coastal engineering), psychology, pre-engineering 

Also requested was a list of considerations that should be deliberated moving into the process’s second phase. That includes allocating resources, hiring new staff and gaining formal approval to have the two new colleges operational for the 2023/2024 school year. 

The report was delivered Oct. 24, and Winebrake presented its 50-plus considerations to the faculty senate Nov. 15. 

Chief among concerns was divvying up resources. UNCW’s new chancellor Aswani Volety, former dean of CAS, stated in the report “no unit will have fewer resources than they have now.”

It also advocates that R2 contributors, including terminal degrees and grant money, “should not land exclusively in one college, otherwise it will lead to resource inequality.”

“There’s certainly been a history — a suspicion, if not a reality — among many college campuses that the sciences get all the money,” Olsen said. “That is offset a little bit by the reality that science is more expensive.” 

Olsen explained science is a more visual field, often needing more materials and up-to-date technology. Whereas in arts and humanities, the onus is on the exploration of ideas, messages, and the human condition; oftentimes, the only space those things take up is a student’s brain. 

“It’s easier to cover the story of science, on magazine covers and websites and all of the stuff,” Olsen said. “It is really, really hard to say, ‘Oh, look at how hard that student had to think, look at that student thinking.”

He said the focus is on arts and humanities scholars to fix that issue, but the university also needs to play a role and spotlight all programs. 

“Neither structure will automatically advance us or hold us back,” Olsen said. “Because, at the end of the day, we’re still going to have to do the work at the daily grind level.”

Mathematics department chair Hattingh told Port City Daily he did not foresee the divide causing a resource rift between programs. He specifically drew from personal experience teaching at East Carolina University. 

“You have two separate deans advocating for the different groups on campus, and I think that just sets us up for more success, more opportunity, and also makes the whole institution much more nimble in reacting to the student needs,” he said.

ECU is another R2 university organized into a mix of colleges and schools. Its College of Arts and Sciences includes chemistry and biology programs, along with history and English. Other schools are dedicated to communication, music, integrated coastal programs, engineering and technology.

With fewer programs to juggle, the two deans of the new colleges will be able to dedicate more time bolstering funds for both the arts and sciences, Hattingh posited. 

CAM business school dean Burrus spoke to the advantages of representing a smaller cohort, which allows him to have roundtable discussions with chairs of all the business school’s departments.

“Some department chairs tend to be more thoughtful and less upfront with their opinions,” Burrus said. “So in a smaller unit like ours, everybody’s putting their ideas on the table, and we usually agree at the end that we’ll all go down a path together.”

The other positive, according to physics professor Gan, is the ability to refine branding.

“[It] will help build a good identity for our department based on STEM fields,” Gan said. “It will attract more high-quality students and faculties to strengthen our program, which will bring more funding and resources.”

Departmental budgets, along with faculty tenure and salaries, are not slated to be affected when the colleges split, according to Winebrake. 

Yet, UNCW will have to dole out more money to cover additional staff salaries. A new dean and associate dean will need to be hired, along with other positions that provide support to academics, such as a communication director, advisors and executive staff.

Some members of the faculty senate shared concerns during the November meeting that it can be hard enough to find money for additional positions due to the university’s rapid growth. Winebrake responded that some would remain shared between colleges until a new position could be filled. 

For example, the public communication specialist may have to be shared between the colleges during the transition.

There were also questions raised on space allocations. A second college’s administration would take up more square footage. However, academic departments and classrooms would still utilize their current spaces, Winebrake noted — no new buildings are included in the restructuring plan. 

Other considerations included in the report — diverse staffing, interdisciplinary work across schools, transparency and consistency in hiring processes, and competition between colleges — are not exclusive issues to CAS.  

“This restructuring idea is bringing a renewed energy to a conversation about chronic under-resourcing campus-wide,” Olsen said. 

He cited UNCW has less staff per student, less classroom square footage per student and less graduate assistant money than its peers. 

“Just name it and we probably have less of it than any of the R2 universities in the UNC System — and historically that’s been true” Olsen said.

He added this moment could be an opportunity to address and improve upon university-wide issues and work as “two of five” colleges, rather than competing with each other. Still,  UNCW will need to ensure infrastructure and resources are there before expanding programs, he said, and that won’t be solved just by having more people to complete more jobs. 

“What we need is not feeling like we’re shoe-stringing every project, not feeling like we’re tapped out, and serving on one more committee than we should be, or teaching five more students because we can’t hire another faculty member to deal with our demand,” Olsen said. 

Moving forward, Olsen said the restructuring can be a way to address those issues, while keeping the process transparent and open for everyone to be heard. 

Winebrake will continue to meet with the CAS Leadership Council, the faculty and staff senates, and UNCW administration to nail down the logistics of the transition, including specific resource allocation and a plan for administrative and support services. A search for new employees, including the dean and associate dean, would begin in the spring. 

As far as the official approval, UNC System President Peter Hans will need to sign off on any new dean positions. Once approved, the new position will be reported to the UNC board of governors at its next meeting as an informational item.  

The UNCW board of trustees will then approve the appointment of an employee into the new dean position. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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