Mapping UB's Future
With quiet persuasion, UB provost Thomas E. Headrick communicates his commitment to change in lively forums with members of the faculty, in casual gatherings with students, in moments of levity with his staff.
His office door in Capen Hall is marked with a sign saying, "Change is good." Last year, as the planning process got under way, his staff playfully presented him with a "Change is good" T-shirt. Since the February publication of the 16-page, tabloid-size report Planning UB's Academic Future, Headrick has logged more than 40 meetings with deans, faculty, students, non-teaching staff and other campus constituents.
At first glance, Headrick, a congenial law professor with wide UB administrative experience, may seem an unlikely candidate to push the university toward its most extensive restructuring in 30 years. There are vocal critics of the plan-leading professors among them-who have spelled out their opposition in lengthy analyses published in the Reporter, the faculty/staff newspaper, or aired their concerns in a series of campus forums held this spring. Many others, however, have welcomed Headrick's emphasis on innovative planning for the future-especially in light of their growing disquiet over declining enrollments and budget cutbacks.
In late 1995, Headrick began to solicit campus opinion, discovering in the process that many of his colleagues harbored the same fears about where the university was headed. "I found a lot of uneasiness about where we were situated, about what was going to happen to us," Headrick said in March. "And my sense in this situation is that you try to take control of your fate, rather than waiting to be bounced around by outside forces."
Headrick's proposal seeks to reorganize the arts and sciences departments. One proposal would form a College of Arts and Sciences by merging the present Faculties of Arts and Letters, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics. An alternate plan would form a College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science, while merging the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences into a College of Science and Engineering.
President William R. Greiner's final decision on the arts and sciences structure is expected later this summer. The groundwork will then be established for the creation of interdisciplinary institutes and centers, an important thrust of the report. Another key point of the plan is to make the master's degree a target degree-an academic credential to be routinely pursued as a continuation of the baccalaureate, or to be sought for its own sake rather than as a stepping-stone to the Ph.D.
Headrick's belief is that the master's degree is fast becoming the new workplace standard for preparation in numerous fields. At present, about 25 percent of the university's graduate students have an undergraduate degree from UB; the provost can envision that proportion increasing to 50 percent. Moreover, such an emphasis would give the university "a very distinctive cast," Headrick has said.
"I don't call it a plan because it's not a plan," Headrick emphasized during a recent interview. "It's a report about planning with a lot of specifics about it; I recognize that. I have also found in my experiences as an academic administrator that the easiest way to engage in a dialogue is to set out some clear positions and then let people respond to them."
UB has all along stated its desire to be recognized as the premier public research university in the Northeast, and in a league with Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, the University of California at Santa Barbara and Virginia-all mid-sized fellow public members of the Association of American Universities. In a June 3 appearance before a campus gathering of University Services managers, Headrick said UB should strive to equal or surpass excellent institutions of similar size. To take this step forward, he said, the university needs to bring more of its graduate programs up to the top quartile of the National Research Council (NRC) rankings. "But not all of them. I think it's unrealistic to think we're going to get all of them in that company." Rather, he said, the goal is to get one-quarter of UB's programs into the top quartile and virtually all of its programs into the top half of the rankings.
Gradually over a five-year period, the provost envisages a change in the enrollment mix that would capitalize on the strengths of UB's faculty and range of programs. Undergraduate freshman enrollment would decline to 2,200 and overall retention would be improved. Transfer student enrollment would increase, so that overall undergraduate enrollment could be stabilized at 16,000. Graduate enrollment would be stabilized at 8,000. The number of Ph.D. students would gradually decline. Professional doctoral-degree enrollments-e.g., M.D., J.D., D.D.S.-would be essentially stable, and master's-level enrollment would increase.
Much discussed in the report are the new research centers and interdisciplinary programs, organized to support significant research and build on research strengths in separate departments and schools, especially in the biological and chemical sciences but in many other cross-disciplinary fields, as well.
Proposed institutes and initiatives under discussion would cover the humanities, policy studies, biological sciences, chemical sciences, and information and communication technology. Also envisioned are an urban initiative, a women and gender institute, an environmental institute and a neuroscience initiative.
Headrick notes that some doctoral programs are likely to be consolidated. In many areas, he points out, higher education is producing too many Ph.D.s for the number of academic jobs available. Some doctoral programs ought to be restructured so that graduates can pursue non-academic careers. On the other hand, "UB has an opportunity to develop new cutting-edge graduate programs that can achieve leadership recognition." It is this frank assessment of UB degree programs, of course, that is unsettling to many and worrisome to faculty critics concerned about the university's status as a center of high-level scholarship associated with pursuit of the Ph.D.
Yet Headrick said in June that he was surprised by the relatively small group of people who have reacted thus far. Two May hearing panels organized for faculty input into the proposed reorganization of the arts and sciences drew only three speakers. An April 1 review session for non-teaching professionals was also sparsely attended; the few who did show up, however, enthusiastically endorsed the notion that change is needed if the university is to flourish.
Thus there is an apparent contradiction in the mood of apprehension and the passion for change, the seeming apathy in some quarters and the vigorous response-both pro and con-from others.
Headrick offers this analysis: "At some point over the next year, I would like the UB community to come to a general sense of where we're going. To say, 'We've taken a good hard look at ourselves and appraised our strengths and our weaknesses. We've taken a look at how the world of higher education is shaping up, and we know what our place is in it and where we're going.' And the plan at that point will be specific enough to be a meaningful guide to future action.
"Not that UB won't vary the plan over time, because institutions do change. But the plan will include clear choices, where we will have gone down some paths and not down others."
And these choices-to paraphrase Robert Frost in "The Road Not Taken"-will make all the difference.