The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

UMW administration proposes academic reorganization plan, faculty petition for proper governance procedures

10 min read

The Academic Affairs Organization Final Model outlines the University’s proposed plans, which led to the faculty petition. UMW Board of Visitors


Associate Editor

Due to editor error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Department of Sociology and Anthropology would be combined with the Department of Geography. Under the proposed plan, the sociology program would be combined with the Department of Geography, and the anthropology program would be grouped with the art history, classics, philosophy and religion programs. 

As of Feb. 21, 67 UMW faculty members have signed a petition to urge University administration to submit the proposed Academic Reorganization plan—which currently calls for the consolidation of multiple academic departments—to the Curriculum Committee to “respect the principle of faculty governance” and follow the guidelines in UMW’s Faculty Handbook. 

The petition has garnered support from faculty in all three colleges—the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education and College of Business—and 16 of the 23 academic departments. 

The petition was co-authored by three faculty members associated with UMW’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors: Eric Bonds, president of the AAUP of UMW Chapter and associate professor of sociology; Jason Davidson, vice president of the chapter and professor of political science and international affairs; and Caitie Finlayson, associate professor of geography who is a chapter member. 

“The petition indicates a very high level of concern among tenured faculty for your failure to respect the Faculty Handbook and faculty governance,” said Bonds in an email addressed to University President Troy Paino and Provost Tim O’Donnell, on behalf of the signatories. “Faculty petitions like this rarely occur at the University of Mary Washington. This level of public dissent is extraordinary and if it is ignored, it is likely to permanently erode trust that our faculty has bestowed on President Paino to this point.”

The petition follows the release of the proposed Academic Reorganization plan created by members of the Academic Organization Working Group. This group was composed of six faculty members and co-led by Dean of the College of Education Peter Kelly, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Keith Mellinger and Dean of the College of Business Filiz Tabak. 

Starting in September 2023, the group was asked to create recommendations to “more effectively organize Academic Affairs to address the challenges that lie ahead and to accomplish our many goals” in a transparent and inclusive manner, according to faculty-wide communications from O’Donnell. 

On Dec. 1, 2023, the group presented their final report to the administration which proposed two organizational models. After receiving the group’s findings, the administration made several adjustments to the recommendations in an effort to keep administrative costs to a minimum. However, according to Finlayson, several aspects of the model chosen were not in the original proposals shared with faculty during the fall semester.

“On Friday, February 2, President Paino and Provost O’Donnell released the final model they had selected – which was not one of the recommended models and called for the consolidation of multiple departments,” she said. “I was definitely surprised that the model they selected was so different from the two models the working group recommended.”

Bonds sent Paino and O’Donnell the petition on Feb. 8—less than one week after Executive Director of University Communications Amy Jessee sent a faculty-wide email on behalf of the Offices of the President and Provost. The email provided faculty with updates on the model the administration had chosen.

According to Jessee’s email, the chosen academic reorganization plan reduces the number of academic departments and eliminates two dean and several department chair positions in an effort to cut costs and promote equity across the academic departments and three colleges. It does not make changes to degree programs or alter majors and minors. 

The plan proposes a reimagined structure of the three colleges, which would be separated into the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business Computational Sciences and College of Education and Health. 

Within the College of Arts and Sciences, the departments would be divided into four schools: School of the Social Sciences, School of the Humanities, School of the Arts and School of Life and Physical Sciences.

For the School of the Social Sciences, the Department of History and American Studies would be combined with the Department of Political Science and International Affairs. Likewise, the sociology program would join the Department of Geography. In the School of Life and Physical Sciences, the chemistry and physics, biology and environmental science departments would be consolidated into two departments. Furthermore, the departments of business administration, computer science, economics and mathematics would be merged into three departments within the College of Business and Computational Sciences. 

The logistics of these department mergers—including the specific dean and department chair positions that would be eliminated—is not provided in the plan, but full implementation of the plan is expected in the 2026 fiscal year, according to O’Donnell.

“It’s going to take a year because we’ve got to revise the [faculty] handbooks, we’ve got to change arrangements in Banner for budgets—there’s so much that goes into getting this to the place where it will be,” said O’Donnell at a Board of Visitors meeting on Feb. 16.

The petition takes no position on the merits of the proposed plan but rather seeks to address the failure in procedure taken by the University as outlined in the current Faculty Handbook. It requests that the administration submit the plan to the University Curriculum Committee in order to allow greater faculty input. 

“[O]ur goal with the petition was to ensure that faculty had an opportunity to reflect on the plan and offer their ideas and concerns through our faculty governance system, whether that’s through the University Curriculum Committee (which is specified in the handbook as the group tasked with reviewing such plans) or the broader University Faculty Council,” said Finlayson in an email to The Weekly Ringer. 

Many faculty feel that any decision regarding structural changes of the academic affairs model that would have implications for the makeup of departments and programs should be made in accordance with the procedures outlined in the handbook. 

“The faculty handbook lays out—particularly as it relates to changes in faculty governance, so combining departments, those types of things—that there should be an opportunity for formal consultation to faculty,” said Rosalyn Cooperman, department chair and professor of political science and international affairs who is also a petition signee. 

In addition to viewing this as a governance issue, faculty members have raised concerns regarding the potential consequences of the proposed plan, such as what it may mean for the campus community. 

“I have three junior faculty who are assistant professors, which means they have not been through the tenure and promotion process,” said Cooperman. “So my concerns are: what would reorganization changes look like for folks who are just getting started in their career who we think are fantastic and we want to remain a part of the department because of the nature of their teaching, the nature of their research and their contributions to the University community?”

Although not all academic departments would be expected to undergo major changes following the implementation of the plan, some signatories view the petition as a way to show support for their colleagues who would be greatly affected.

“A second aspect is the question of solidarity,” said Marcel Rotter, chair and associate professor of the modern languages and literature department who also signed the petition. “While my own department has no problems being part of the School of the Humanities, I understand that other programs are not very happy about their new ‘home.’”

Some professors question the purpose and implementation of the plan.

“To me, what’s unclear is what we’re trying to achieve, why we need this, why we need these changes? What evidence do we have that they can achieve the goals that the administration would like to meet? ” said Bonds. “Is this the best way to achieve those goals? I just think, for that reason, it worries me to have a really rushed process. It seems like there’s time to let the faculty governance process play its course.”

Jackie Gallagher, chair and associate professor of the geography department and the lone member of the Academic Organization Working Group to sign the petition, believes that greater consideration is necessary before the plan is implemented. 

“My sole goal in signing the petition was to slow down the process,” she said. “I think there are repercussions that have not been considered and I hoped that having to follow some additional procedure might slow adoption of a new organization so that consequences can be thought through before adoption.”

Chair of the Curriculum Committee and Professor of geography Dawn Bowen said that while no submission of the proposed plan has been made to her Committee, she has observed what may be the beginning of efforts to gather more faculty feedback.

“We agree that there needs to be greater faculty input and I believe that is starting to happen through meetings,” Bowen said. “Faculty do see that this is a governance issue.”

Rachel Graefe-Anderson, chair of the University Faculty Council and professor of business, said that greater opportunities to pose questions and provide feedback will be offered to faculty following a coordinated effort with the deans of the three colleges.

“We encourage participation in the process, and as more faculty have turned their attention to the topic, we reiterate that we want these concerns, critiques, ideas and opportunities to come through UFC,” she said.

During a University Faculty Council meeting on Feb. 21, attendees were told that their comments would be collected through the end of next week, and at the next UFC meeting on March 20, responses to that feedback would be provided. At the meeting, Paino said that he hopes the plan will be finalized within the next month, according to Finlayson.

While faculty have been granted an opportunity to provide feedback, there has been no communication to students from the University throughout this entire process. Those who have heard about the proposed plan have primarily received information from their own professors. Others have heard it from fellow students, but a large portion is unaware of the plan’s existence. 

“I was not aware of the academic reorganization prior to this interview and was a little shocked when I learned about it,” said Ethan Sweeny, a sophomore geospatial analysis major during an interview with The Weekly Ringer. “I would have appreciated if the university would have held public information meetings or sent out emails about the possibility of these changes happening before they took the next steps in the implementation process.”

Upon hearing about the proposed plan, some students said that they would not have attended UMW if their respective department was combined with another when they were applying to colleges. 

“To be honest, the geography department itself was one of the most major factors in my decision to come here. If they did not have a specific department for geography and GIS, I do not think I would have picked this school, especially when George Mason and JMU have programs for it,” said Elisa Luckabaugh, a senior geography major and president of the UMW geography club.

Kat Donovan, a junior anthropology major and president of the UMW sociology and anthropology club, feels similarly to Luckabaugh. 

“Though I love what I study, anthropology is already a very limited field considering UMW only focuses on cultural anthropology,” she said. “Combining it with other said subjects would only dilute it more and to me, demeans the importance of anthropology as a field of study.”

According to a list of frequently asked questions included in Jessee’s Feb. 2 email, this potential reorganization plan “will mean very little for students” because no changes would be made to degree programs. This means that students would still graduate with a degree in their chosen field of study, even if the academic department it falls under contains multiple programs. For example, a student wanting to major in anthropology could still graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology even though that degree program would be in the same academic department with art history, classics, philosophy and religion. However, some are concerned that these consolidation efforts will decrease the resources and support available to students within the affected departments.

“This school has an award-winning geography department with a passionate community of students, and it makes UMW a special place for me,” said Luckabaugh. “I’m afraid that if this program were dissolved and mixed into other departments, that it will limit opportunities for student research and involvement, which is something that is so valuable and readily available in the department at this point in time.”

Cooperman echoed Luckabaugh’s concerns. 

“We are very interested and very invested in our students’ success through providing them the content, training, support and guidance [and] mentorship that we do,” she said. “So those are the things that make me anxious. If there are things that may get in the way of our doing that or make it more difficult, then that is certainly cause for concern.”

Many students wish that they had been formally informed of this proposal and given an opportunity to provide their own feedback. 

“Instead of combining [departments], I feel the school should see what the students want, and what they are interested in,” said Donovan. “We are a humanities and liberal arts school, and it looks like we don’t take that seriously as an institution.”

The University hopes the plan will bolster recruitment, retention and fundraising efforts, but many are skeptical of the positive impact the administration claims these changes will have. 

“I am profoundly concerned that in their haste to make relatively small financial savings, the administration is choosing a cure that will kill the patient,” said Davidson. “For example, if our admissions drop by five percent because students see a combined Political Science/History/International Affairs department as not valuing any of those majors, then what is the benefit of savings on a combined department chair?”

Even with the chance to provide feedback over the next few weeks, some faculty are skeptical of the merit that their comments will be given in light of the administration’s expressed haste.

“While I appreciate the administration’s willingness to listen to faculty feedback and am pleased that the UFC will be collecting comments, my optimism is tempered,” said Finlayson. “There’s a crucial difference between simply listening to faculty input and actively empowering faculty to participate in governance and in shared decision-making and my hope is that we can move toward the latter.”