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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Dean shares budget advice with administrators

It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark … and there weren’t protests when the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences began restructuring its budget.

But there is a financial crisis presently – and because it began preparing for an economic hit more than a year ago – CA&ES was well prepared.

“We began our consultation with faculty about how to prepare for the cuts probably sooner than others did, in part because we have experienced significant budget cuts in our college before,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of CA&ES.

CA&ES took a 15 percent overall cut to their budget about six years ago when the state made cuts targeting agricultural research and cooperative extension. The college had to downsize their faculty by about 50 full-time employees as a result, said Jim McDonald, executive associate dean of CA&ES.

To combat the problem this time around, Van Alfen created the Academic Prioritization Committee, chaired by former nutrition professor M.R.C. Greenwood. The APC released a report this summer that advised the closure of three departments – Textiles and Clothing, Nematology and Environmental Design – and a redistribution of faculty.

“We have a lot of departments that have become small over the past few years and they cannot keep sustaining with small faculty sizes,” McDonald said. “They get so small that they can’t function and we want to build around robust departments.”

Van Alfen said tough choices are made in order for CA&ES to retain its prestige and excellence.

“We’re considered the best in the world at what we do, and with that kind of pre-eminence, you just can’t keep that quality by cutting across the board,” Van Alfen said.

CA&ES’ proactive approach prompted Chancellor Linda Katehi to request that Van Alfen speak with the Council of Deans and Vice Chancellors to share his insight.

Van Alfen said it’s tough to give advice because each college is so different, but shared with them CA&ES’ year-long procedure that yielded the APC report and birthed two faculty working groups that will search for ways to restructure the college.

Recommendations for final cuts will come from teams led by Associate Deans Jan Hopmans and Mary Delany. The groups are looking into reorganizing departments within the college, and will report its findings to Van Alfen in February.

“We’re almost starting from scratch, getting information from all of the departments and faculty in terms of what ‘visionary’ research and teaching areas are in the college,” Hopmans said. “From that we’re starting to look at how we can develop research and teaching programs to fit within revisionary program areas.”

One challenge unique to CA&ES is its age demographic, Hopmans said. Only 25 percent of CA&ES’ faculty is under 50 – meaning 75 percent are expected to retire within the next 10 years.

“If we lose those [faculty] from some departments, that could decimate programs,” McDonald said of the potential consequences. “We’ve appointed committees to address that and determine which ones we would and wouldn’t replace positions in.”

Van Alfen said budget crises are times of opportunity for introspection and improvement.

“You have to accept the fact that if you’re going to remain very good, you can’t just keep slicing off, making horizontal cuts that take away faculty telephones and things,” he said. “We’re choosing to do fewer things, but to do them very well and be the best in the country at what we do.”

MIKE DORSEY can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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