An open letter to a dying department.

Hello, Department. I am ostensibly part of you, except you’d never know that unless I told you. I get it, though; we interact with one another so little to avoid conflict, that it’s no surprise that you don’t know that I or most of the 20+ first year graduate students exist. This lack of interaction-even between people who have offices on the same floor of the same building- is probably why we still haven’t convened to find a new department head, or have good strategies to help grad students who run out of outside funding. But I digress, because even though we barely acknowledge one another, we should have A Talk, Department. A heart to heart before we go back to ignoring one another, if you will–like the casual partners we are.

Department, I heard the gossip–we are getting Changed. We’re under duress, friend–we have a little over a month to come up with A Plan to either prove we should exist to the College or we will be scrambled up into a clustermug of faculty from disparate departments. I hear that some of you are saying Truly Wild things, Department. That you’ll leave your tenure package behind and jump ship if this “doesn’t go your way”. That some of your fresher faculty are even saying that it’s better not to get tenure, in case this goes sideways. The few grad students who know about this (because, you’ve kept it privy like a party secret) are terrified of this merger-or-survive, since they don’t know if they’ll have a faculty adviser come next fall or even a stipend on which to live.

Department, there are a lot of things that could go wrong, here–its true. But let’s think of all the things that could go right. Let’s shoot for the moon, even. Think about it. In its storied history, this department and indeed, our entire institution, has been the poster child for the traditional academic. We’re majority made of white male faculty, with a sprinkle of white women; in fact, we only have four tenured faculty of color in a department of 47 tenure or tenure-track professors. Our professors openly tell one another and students not to rock the boat, to stay away from science communication, and that the most important thing to do is publish. The grad student body is not much different: with the majority of students either being white students from the upper class of the South or being international pay-to-play students who largely assimilate into even the most toxic facets of academia. We’ve gone nearly 70 years with our noses to our desks, venturing out of the ivory tower only long enough to go to conferences or to make sure our study sites still do, in fact, exist. We’ve done everything right, according to our current model of academia.

Even with all this, our department has still been picked for dissolution. We have a month to compile a report which pleads our case, to justify our very existence to the school. Is this not the time for radical action, Department? Is this not the moment to look at all the data, to stare into one another’s faces instead of into our computer monitors, and swerve to avoid catastrophe by admitting we must adapt to survive?

The people on this committee that dictates how we will move forward as a Department should not be the old guard of professors. It shouldn’t even be made up of the endowed professors of the department–their positions are safe within the College even if the Department is dissolved. It should consist of mid-and early career faculty and graduate students, because we are the people who actually have to live with who the Department is going to be in the near future. There can be token full faculty–we should respect our elders–but we should’t have the entire committee be made up of their thoughts. Their recalcitrance to the changes in the academic landscape are what led to our current predicament.

We also should redirect and reimagine ourselves. Instead of staying entombed in the ivory tower, we should reward faculty and staff who reach out to the communities they work in. We should reward researchers who have real-time solutions for land managers, as well as basic researchers toiling away in labs and on grants. We can become the leading age for the coming age of academia, one that teaches grad students that we can be the total package: a good researcher, a good communicator, and a good colleague.

What I am trying to say, beloved Department, is that this is our last chance. We can either maintain the status quo, the very one which is now dangling the guillotine above our heads and scaring away the fresh perspectives of junior faculty and students; or, we can run in the opposite direction and set up the infrastructure needed to become a modern and successful place to do science.

What I am trying to say, Department, is that I want us to be together in life, and not just in the silent aftermath of our dissolution. What I am trying to say, beloved Department, is that at this point we have nothing to lose from becoming radicals. The worst thing that could happen to us, is already happening to us.

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