Advocate for Geography in Austerity

This is Part 1 of a two-part column on what geography departments can do (and should not do) to advocate for their work in budget talks, which are all the more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. These points are largely derived from answers I received from geographers in upper administrative positions at universities.

At the end of October, the Chronicle of Higher Education covered the looming budget woes for colleges and universities across the country, with many states expecting 10% budget cuts. Public higher education likely will be disproportionally affected by state budget cuts as they face “two crises: the impact of Covid-19 on their operations and a downturn in state funding brought on by the current recession.” In addition, as reported in a June article in Nature, the response to the Coronavirus pandemic will also force universities to address growing challenges in higher education, such as mounting tuition costs, public perception of relevancy, and a demographically driven decrease in numbers of graduating high school seniors.  Yet, as we know, tuition increases are a direct result of more than a decade’s worth of states balancing their budgets on the backs of public colleges and universities that were once the lifeblood of the U.S.’s affordable higher education.  Further, in an article just released in Inside Higher Ed, the coronavirus pandemic has caused more than one-third of prospective college students to reconsider higher education (see Doubts About Going to College).

In short, the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated problems we have known about for some time. As a 2019 Gallup poll showed, there was already a marked decrease in public confidence in higher education in the U.S. going into this pandemic as a result of soaring tuition and barriers to access.  If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it is that geography is a crucial discipline for grasping and addressing the dire issues our earth faces. Yet in a year that has demonstrated our value, some of our geography departments continue to struggle for relevancy on university campuses.

What’s a Geography Department To Do (or Not Do)?

While geography departments do not control university budgets, we can think and act strategically to remain relevant to students, the public, and university and college administration. In this light, I have received a growing number of requests from department chairs as well as individual members asking for AAG assistance in demonstrating geography departments’ relevancy to key stakeholders. Those requests have varied, but range from advocating for lost positions to requesting brochures/videos to show to administration to demonstrate geography’s relevancy. I reflected on my experience as department chair and I was fairly certain that deans, provosts, and presidents wouldn’t be swayed by (or even take the time to view) brochures or videos from AAG.  I also knew that the time to act is before positions are cut, not after.

I therefore drafted an email and sent it to several geographers in administrative positions around the U.S.  My request was fairly simple… “please list your ‘Top 3 Dos’ and ‘Top 3 Not Dos’ in order to develop highly effective, impactful, and well-functioning geography departments (from the perspective of deans and provosts).”  The responses were remarkably consistent.

I’ll go in reverse order and start with the “Top 3 Don’ts,” mostly because these are relatively straightforward and require little additional discussion—the “Do’s” will have a column of their own next month.  Some of these Don’ts harken back to Ron Abler’s Five Steps to Oblivion.

1.  Don’t Prolong and Disseminate Department Conflict and In-fighting. Unless you’re a one-person department, you can’t escape departmental politics, one of the primary dynamics in academic departments. In a broader sense, conflict is an unavoidable and sometimes-necessary aspect of academic life. Yet persistent, unresolved in-fighting is not healthy for departments and, if tolerated, will hurt your department’s chances of success in budget battles. As one of the respondents to my request said: “No provost or president wants to become embroiled in personnel problems in a department.  I had the very negative experience of being an external “visitor” at a major university to look at the issues in a particular department (not geography).  The department members had done almost everything they could have done to bring negative attention to themselves and place themselves on the cutting block.”

While we have our moments, I’m fortunate to work in a functional and collegial department.  But I’ve experienced and heard tales about departments that are not as fortunate…slamming doors, stomping out of meetings, pouting, insulting…  Is this behavior rooted in academics’ quest for intellectual discussion, our passion for our sub-disciplines, or because we care so much for our students?


Clearly, some conflicts can be helpful.  For example, conflicts around marginalization because of disability, race, or gender are necessary for departments to grow.  The  destructive conflicts, however—the ones that divide departments—always seem to be personal.  Petty turf wars, feelings of being slighted, resentment about small merit pay differences, irritation at office assignments, frustration over teaching assistant selection, and on and on.  We all know the many examples.  Airing these grievances may offer temporary relief and validation, but can in the long term crowd out the space for collaboration where the exploration of healthy, generative differences can be daylighted and lead to stronger visions for a department that addresses different views about direction, vision, power, and the future of the discipline.  Worse yet, airing these grievances outside the department creates a large billboard to the world stating “This department is dysfunctional.”

In short, work out difficulties and leave the personal battles at the door when visiting your dean or provost with requests on behalf of the department.  As intelligent, hyper-educated academics, we should know better than to pee in our own pool.

2. Don’t be unrealistic in demands for central resource investments. In my experience, this issue often arises when departments discuss graduate student support and new or replacement faculty lines. I’m always surprised when I hear something along the lines of… “central administration has to know how important it is for us to replace our position in fill-in-the-blank sub-discipline.”

No, they don’t have to know that.  In fact, they may not even care about disciplines; their focus is on the overall health of the home institution.  It’s our job to collect, analyze, and summarize the data and demonstrate the relevance of our needs to the entire university, not just to Geography.  Usually, but not always, university budgets are rather immobile.  And inadequate.  It’s strategic and realistic to realize that a finite and inadequate budget is applied to all units across campus.  Departments should continue to be visionary and ambitious, but recognize the broader realities and adjust arguments accordingly.  Every other department on campus is also asking for resources.  And, many colleges and universities have precarious structures which are not designed to withstand the level of disruption that the collective COVID response has thrown at them.

3. Don’t whine. 

The them-versus-us paradigm between faculty and administrators plays out across campuses throughout the world.  Faculty complain about the familiar issues: poor student preparation, equity in teaching loads, poor facilities, lack of equipment, competition for inadequate resources, underfunded initiatives…  This paradigm has become its own social construct in which faculty often see administrators as obstructionists.

Yet, often the reality is that both faculty and administrators care deeply about the students and institution.  The disconnect comes because administrators are the policy and budgetary gatekeepers, with the unappealing task of trying to stretch inadequate resources across an entire campus.  They are often (but not always) aware of the shortfalls that result.  Departments and faculty, then, often feel that they’re at the bottom of the hill, shoveling the proverbial dung.

While it’s important to advocate for the needs of our departments to higher administration, perpetuating institutional cynicism is not strategic.  One of the best lessons I learned from all of my years serving on review panels throughout the National Science Foundation is the importance of positively stating negative critiques:  “this proposal would be improved if the PI did…”.  I shamelessly borrowed this approach from NSF during my time as department chair, making the argument to the administration that specific productivity and metrics would be enhanced with identified allocation improvements.

Don’t bring a problem to your administrators.  Bring a solution.

.  .  .

In hindsight, I realize that the lists of Dos and Don’ts I received rather mirror each other.  But, I parsed them out and summarize the Don’ts above.  Next month, I’ll share the Dos.  As a preview, the three Dos, which have been expanded into four Dos, include: strategic alignment, communication, partnership, and productivity.

—Amy Lobben
AAG President and Professor at University of Oregon
lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0082

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.

Featured Image: “Better Days Ahead” painted in a bright blue arrow directly on a street. Photographer Ian Taylor, Unsplash