A chalkboard in the Keene State College geology wing of the science center reads, “Without people studying geology, people go extinct.” After the administration sent an e-mail to current geology students early in September, however, it appears the geology program itself might go extinct long before students do.
On Sept. 6, KSC sophomore geology students received an e-mail from the Assistant Dean of the School of Sciences Dr. Shari Bemis which said the college was rethinking the major, making it difficult for current geology students to finish their degree.
The e-mail from Bemis stated, “I would like to extend my apologies for any inconvenience that this might cause, but please be assured that I have carefully reviewed your transcript and that in my opinion, there is still plenty of time to change your major and still graduate in a timely fashion.”
She then offered students the opportunity to meet with her personally in order to make adjustments to their schedules.
According to the Dean of the School of Sciences and Social Sciences Dr. Gordon Leversee though, he had asked Bemis to be available to identify students who would need assistance in staying on track to fully complete their degree at KSC.
Leversee said, “We want to be sure that the students who are here stay on track for completing their courses and their degrees, especially with the faculty retirements. So I’ve asked my Assistant Dean Shari Bemis to identify those students [and] see where they are in the program…so we want to be sure we are scheduling courses students need and we also want to be sure that when the classes are offered, the students who need them come and take them.”
Associate Professor of Geology Dr. Steven Bill described this as “disconcerting” because he said he is getting different stories. “There are both e-mails and conversations with students that strongly suggest that administrators are trying to talk them out of continuing, regardless of how far along they are in the major….now they seem to be saying something different and it wouldn’t be that hard for us to sit down and we can continue to talk in the student’s best interest. This is what we need to do, it’s a very feasible thing to have them finish off,” Bill explained.
Bill said he was not notified of this email sent out to his students.
“We [geology professors] found out because one of the students was so upset that she sent a copy of the email to me. We were not aware that this was going on…some of our students have been called in to talk to administrators and they’ve been trying to talk them out of the major saying, ‘No, you can’t finish it so you might as well look at some other major,’ and we’re protesting,” Bill explained.
Bill also said the geology professors, on at least two different occasions, gave the dean a plan of which courses would need to be offered in order for the students to fulfill their requirements. “…there’s been no reason to think that those couldn’t be done like that, especially given that students have come here for the program. It seems basically criminal to say, ‘Oh you can’t do it,’” Bill continued.
Dean Leversee said the reason for the possible change is because of faculty changes which have occurred over time.
Over the past 10 years, Leversee said the program had two tenure-track faculty members, one of whom retired last year, Dr. Peter Nielsen, and another who is nearing retirement, Dr. Steven Bill.
Based on past enrollments and numbers of majors, Leversee said replacing the faculty members is a growing concern.
“It seems unlikely that we’re going to be able to replace those lines in the same department. We can really see that with two faculty, there were some questions about being able to deliver the program, but [with] declining numbers of tenure-track faculty, it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to be able to deliver the program as we have delivered it.”
He continued, “I think geology is going to be part of the future of Keene State. There are going to be classes for students to take and opportunities for students to do things in geology, but it’s going to look different in the future.”
In 2012, the geology program was given a 10 year review which represented the program’s strengths and challenges.
In regards to its strengths, the external reviewers “emphasized the good academic credentials of the faculty and the positive comments provided by students regarding the quality of teaching.”
Additionally, the external reviewers pointed out, “The enrollments in geology courses had risen 50 percent since the last external review, and that the department is a major contributor to the ISP curriculum at Keene State College.”
As far as challenges go, the external reviewers were more vocal in expressing concerns related to low enrollment in the major, only two tenure-track faculty members, heavy reliance on adjunct faculty members for delivery of the curriculum and a lack of updated equipment and research.
The external reviewers also expressed recommendations for possible changes to the program which can be found in the Academic Overview Committee (AOC) report on the geology program.
Bill also said the college has tried to downsize, inevitably meaning it can’t support the same number of faculty members.
As retirements occur, it really becomes a question of whether the college will replace them and if not, will they be able to keep these programs?
Some students said they have heard that the college senate might have a say in how the college moves forward with this issue.
KSC Chair of the College Senate and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Karen Stanish said the senate has no role with putting the program on hold; the dean and provost carry that responsibility.
“Geology does not fit the definition that we’ve put as [a] low-enrolled major at the moment. It probably will as the student population goes down, but it hasn’t at the moment so we haven’t actually triggered the senate process yet. It’s just these retirements that are sort of triggering the process earlier than it would have otherwise,” Stanish said.
KSC is the only school in New Hampshire to have a specified geology program.
Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire offer geology tracks under the earth studies umbrella. As far as students go, many in the major are at Keene State solely for the geology program only.
KSC sophomore geology student Crystal Pringle spent three years at a community college until she transferred to KSC.
She said she left her son, who’s living with her mom 100 miles away, and sacrificed everything in order to be here at Keene.
Pringle said, “Most of us in the geology program, we’re all out of state. We come here just for geology; that’s the only reason we’re here…I will be able to get my degree here and if I wasn’t able to, me and every one of my other sophomore classmates are gone. We’re here for one purpose… ”
Many geology students, including Pringle, have had a difficult time wrapping their head around the idea of cancelling the program.
Pringle said, “What is the Keene State creed? What do we graduate with the vow to do? Go out and serve? You’re taking away a life-saving service and one that’s not available anywhere to get besides here.”
She continued, “There’s an opportunity. Take it. Make the program into something that really stands out and you’re going to have so many more students here.”
Andrew Michaud, a KSC senior geology student, will not be affected by any changes made to the department, but is still concerned for the sake of future majors.“…even if something did happen to the department, I’d still be getting out of here with my degree, but it’s still my department and I’d really hate to see anything happen to it because it is important,” Michaud said.
When asked what the future of the geology program looks like, Dean Leversee said, “The decision is pretty much made in the sense that what we’re guaranteeing is the students that are here will get the program that’s on the books.”
He continued, “Beyond that, as we communicate with incoming students, communication would come from the provost about whether or not the students can declare the major for fall of ’17.”
Assistant Dean of the School of Sciences Dr. Shari Bemis and Provost William Seigh did not respond to request for comment.
Jessica Ricard can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org