Faculty divided on plan for a new UVM

Last semester, Professor Don Loeb had to teach a philosophy class with 172 students, which normally has no more than 65 students. Instead of taking 15 minutes to grade each exam, he now only has the time to take five.Because of sacrifices like these, Loeb and some other faculty are worried that UVM doesn’t have enough resources to put toward the new Transdisciplinary Research Initiative (TRI), a plan involving eight areas of study that could affect undergraduate curricula.The eight topic areas, or “spires of excellence,” as the University calls them, are: biological sciences and bioengineering, complex systems, culture and society, environment, food systems, neurosciences, policy studies and public health/sustainable health/health policy.TRI collaborates research efforts across undergraduate and graduate colleges and the overall goal is to enhance the reputation of UVM as a research and scholarship institution at a national and international level, Cynthia Forehand, chair of Curricular Affairs, said.Loeb said that he is worried that TRI could force students to stay here longer to complete requirements due to lack of courses being offered and a lack of space in those courses. “If this were just a problem in philosophy I wouldn’t be talking about it,” he said. “I think it’s a problem across Arts and Sciences and across the University.”However, President Daniel Mark Fogel said he is proud of the TRI process and thinks it’s essential in building the undergraduate and graduate community.”A lot of undergrads come here because they want research experience, and we’re not going to attract the capable, engaged student body unless we have significant recognition in the scholarly world,” President Fogel said.Forehand supports TRI because it focuses more on graduate education but also allows undergraduates to have more research opportunities.However, Loeb said that although he’s not opposed to the ideas of the programs, he is concerned about the initial process of TRI.”The question is what we can afford to do extra right now and what the trade-offs are and how much faculty is involved in governance here at the University,” he said. “Right now it’s almost a dictatorship, and that’s just not right.”Faculty didn’t have anything to do with picking the eight areas of study. The framework of TRI was decided upon by the administration, Forehand said.”Faculty are quite concerned about the process, including some supporters, because we weren’t consulted at the earlier stages and later when we were consulted we weren’t listened to very much,” Loeb said.However, President Fogel said that faculty has played a key role in endorsing this and more than 140 faculty members volunteered to help propose TRI.Some members of the University feel that there wasn’t enough thought put into choosing the eight areas of study because it was done so quickly, sociology professor Tom Streeter said.”The argument isn’t that any of the eight areas were wrong or dumb, but people don’t have confidence that the selection of those eight was the best selection that served as a reasonable starting point,” he said.Streeter said he felt that some people are afraid that the administration has their eyes too firmly fixed on short-term marketing and not enough on building the ideas that are needed to make it successful.”There were corners cut because there was a sense that ‘we need to get this done,'” he said. “They cut a little too deep into the quality of the process.”Some faculty also worry the administration is trying to influence UVM’s ranking in U.S News and World Report and that the University is using TRI as publicity, Loeb said.However, Dean of the Graduate College Domenico Grasso disagrees.”The goal of TRI is to hire the best faculty and to have the best programs and so that the students and the state can benefit,” Grasso said.Streeter said that he felt UVM is too expensive to be a place where there’s not enough research going on, and prospective students, especially those from out of state, focus on a university’s reputation.”One of the things that people look at when they’re trying to decide colleges is, ‘is this a serious place?’ or ‘is this a place with a good reputation?'” Streeter said.Furthermore, the University has also talked about eliminating existing Ph.D. programs that don’t have much going on with them, Streeter said.”If you have a major that no student has graduated in for the last eight years, you might think it’s time to consider eliminating that major,” Forehand said.However, President Fogel stressed that no programs will be eliminated. Only a select few programs have been delayed.”[The programs that have been put on hold] haven’t been killed yet, but people have been told don’t count on them and that certainly made a lot of people anxious,” Streeter said.Another set of complaints, particularly of interest to students, is that the University is creating TRI at a time when it doesn’t have a lot of money, Streeter said.”We’re barely treading water financially, so it’s getting harder for students to pay tuition and there are a lot of departments who aren’t able to hire positions where faculty retired — sociology is one,” he said.People are not convinced that this can be done without overburdening other parts of the University, Streeter said.”President Fogel will tell you ‘this will not impact undergraduate education,’ and I think we’ve all heard him say that many times but we haven’t seen how it can be done,” he said.As of now, TRI is just a process and nothing is complete, Forehand said.Three of the eight areas of study, Neuroscience, Behavior and Health, Complex Systems , and Food Systems were confirmed and announced on April 16, according to a report from University Communications.The other five areas of study are still proposals and not yet “spires” and are currently in external review, Forehand said.In May, the Board of Trustees will receive a status report on TRI and be asked to authorize the administration to proceed with next steps, according to a report from University Communications.”I think that President Fogel is the best thing to happen to the University of Vermont in the 18 years that I’ve been here,” Loeb said. “The previous presidents, for the most part, were just not competent in not showing leadership, but I think at this point, however, it’s gone too far.”