University Politics

Michele Wheatly’s proposed STEM focus divides SU faculty

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Syracuse University Vice Chancellor and Provost Michele Wheatly addressed “a university-wide STEM branding strategy” to showcase SU's success in STEM field. Faculty members are divided over the branding idea.

It was the last item on the agenda for the University Senate’s March 22 meeting that triggered immediate and wide-ranging reactions from Syracuse University faculty members.

SU Vice Chancellor and Provost Michele Wheatly revealed that she and academic deans have discussed a proposal to create “a university-wide STEM branding strategy” that would make SU “a leading model for contemporary STEM education.” Many SU faculty members both at the meeting and in later interviews said they were blindsided by Wheatly’s report.

Although Wheatly has stressed that no concrete decision has been made, SU faculty members are split over the branding idea. Some embrace the proposed strategy as an encouraging sign of support for STEM fields, while others caution that the branding could make the university’s non-STEM academic disciplines secondary to STEM disciplines.

The provost emphasized during the meeting that the university needs to find “a niche” to brand itself in “a very crowded marketplace,” so that it can provide academic experience to students under the spirit of the Academic Strategic Plan — one of the three pillars of Chancellor Kent Syverud’s Fast Forward Syracuse initiative.

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At the Senate meeting, two senators immediately questioned the idea: Crystal Bartolovich, an English associate professor, called the idea “disconcerting,” while Robert Van Gulick, a philosophy professor, theorized that the STEM plan is driven by a marketing strategy, something that Wheatly dismissed right away.

In a statement to The Daily Orange, Wheatly said she will be updating the University Senate on the STEM topic at its April 19 meeting.

Wheatly clarified her remarks from the Senate meeting in the statement provided to The Daily Orange, saying SU is not rebranding itself as a STEM university and instead is developing a “set of guiding principles” to showcase its success in STEM fields.

Wheatly has asked deans to share their thoughts about a potential STEM focus for the university, said Teresa Dahlberg, dean of SU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, in a statement. The provost has also asked deans to put together their feedback on the vision into a draft, Dahlberg added.

During the University Senate’s March 22 meeting, Wheatly said that the STEM branding strategy benefits non-STEM subjects like liberal arts by facilitating an intersection between STEM and non-STEM.

“It will help us advance a case to prospective students, donors and faculty that Syracuse STEM education is bigger than the field for science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Wheatly said during the meeting.

Multiple faculty members who were present at the meeting later said the announcement caught them completely off guard. Dana Cloud, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies, said decision-making for the potential STEM designation has lacked transparency. Wheatly and deans have conducted discussions about the STEM idea without consultation from faculty members, she added.

SU has been recognized as a significant STEM research institution. Three physics researchers from SU contributed to the discovery of gravitational waves last year. The university’s graduate level information systems program ranks second in the nation and the library and information science program ranks fourth in the nation in their respective fields, according to U.S News and World Report. The university was designated a R1 research institution in the 2015 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

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Courtesy of Caltech Media Assets

Duncan Brown, the Charles Brightman Professor of physics — one of the three researchers who contributed to the gravitational waves discovery — said the STEM proposal does not mean the university will invest all of its resources into STEM fields.

“I interpreted the comments as building on the excellence of our STEM departments for the benefit of all,” Brown said. “We have opportunities where STEM disciplines are bringing significant international profile as well as funding for the university. How could all the other disciplines benefit from our strengths in STEM and how can STEM benefit from the strengths of our other disciplines?”

Charles Driscoll, a University Professor of environmental systems and a distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering, said he supports the branding idea because it is consistent with the university’s approach in graduate level studies, where intersection between STEM and non-STEM disciplines is already evident.

Referring to a perceived notion that scientists and engineers are not proficient in communication, Driscoll said it’s important for students studying in STEM fields to be able to convey complex ideas to the general public using speaking and writing skills that are taught in liberal arts education. Driscoll said he sees the benefit of creating this intersection between STEM and non-STEM disciplines in undergraduate level studies as well.

Compared to other institutions, STEM is less represented at SU, Driscoll said. In 2015, 337 students obtained undergraduate degrees from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, less than the number of students that obtained undergraduate degrees from the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications or the College of Arts and Sciences, according to an Outcome Report released by SU’s Career Services.

Karin Ruhlandt, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences — which oversees both humanities and science departments — echoed Wheatley’s point that “branding” is not the right choice of word. Interdisciplinarity, she said in a statement, is already taking place at SU and it is doing well.

“The humanities play a significant role in the College of Arts and Sciences, and not just in the teaching area, also humanity research is critical and supported by my office,” Ruhlandt said in her statement. “Just as an example, no biomedical program should exist without a class in ethics, and our outstanding philosophy department does world class research on the topic, and provides courses and lectures on the topic.”

There are already a number of interdisciplinary studies between STEM and non-STEM subjects in place at SU, including the Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute that intersects forensic science and national security and the Lava Project, which is coordinated by an assistant professor in art and an earth sciences professor.

There are also multidisciplinary, undergraduate arts and sciences dual programs that enable students to combine STEM majors — biology, biotechnology, chemistry and earth sciences — and Whitman majors such as entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises, marketing management and supply chain management.

The university announced last week that the master’s of science in finance program, offered through Whitman, will be designated as a STEM program effective May 15 this year. Donald Harter, associate dean for masters programs, said this is because Wall Street companies, financial institutions and finance departments within organizations are using analytics more often to make decisions, which requires higher-level math and technology skills.

Computers, or general finance specialists equipped with advanced knowledge on mathematics and technology, have replaced many jobs on Wall Street, he said.

“Industries are demanding not that you just understand how to read a financial statement, but how do you apply analytics to financial data to make decisions, how do you use very sophisticated mathematics to help make those decisions? And that’s really the realm of STEM,” Harter said. “The jobs are actually shifted. The mix is shifting and we are seeing growth in the area of the mathematics, technology oriented finance and less growth or slight decline in financial trading.”

The United States Department of Education estimates, between 2010 and 2020, a 16 percent increase in mathematics-related jobs, a 32 percent increase in systems software developers and 62 percent increase in biomedical engineering jobs.

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Ally Moreo, Photo Editor

The merger between STEM and non-STEM is becoming more prevalent, which is why business students need to understand STEM and non-STEM students benefit from understanding business, Harter said. Aware of this merging between disciplines, Whitman faculty members are teaching courses focused on analytics that did not exist three years ago, and the school is looking for job candidates with STEM backgrounds to hire as faculty members.

Some faculty members, though, worry that an increasing focus on STEM neglects investment in non-STEM subjects.

Kathryn Everly, chair of the university’s Humanities Council — which comprises humanities department chairs, faculty members and interdisciplinary program coordinators — said humanities are undervalued at SU. She added that while the university often mentions the importance of interdisciplinary programs, there is no support from the administration “at any level” in terms of collaborative teaching among faculties across different schools.

“I think frankly it comes down to donors and alums and where the big money comes from … that people who graduate with degrees in the humanities maybe don’t go on to run billion-dollar companies and give a ton of money back to the university,” Everly said, adding that there needs to be economic investment and support for programs in the humanities and social sciences that work with the proposed STEM branding.

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While pointing out that the STEM brand strategy is a rough proposal that needs to be fleshed out, John Burdick, professor and chair of anthropology, expressed his skepticism toward the idea in an email. Burdick, who said he supports STEM fields, called Wheatly’s talking point on the intersection of STEM and non-STEM academic disciplines “a recipe for superficiality, artifice and special pleading.”

“Any effort to do something university-wide that is motivated by the idea that we need to carve out a niche to compete in a crowded market is likely to be gimmicky and skin-deep,” Burdick said.

Several faculty members said that they worry SU won’t be able to compete with STEM programming from institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SU, for example, currently ranks No. 75 in best undergraduate engineering programs, according to U.S. News and World Report — behind SU peer institutions such as Cornell University, the University of Notre Dame and Lehigh University.

SU’s strength traditionally lies in programs not centered on STEM, such as Newhouse School and the School of Architecture, Everly said. Driscoll, though, argued that the STEM branding strategy could work specifically because those professional schools are already successful, so an intersection between STEM and non-STEM subject areas, like public policy and management, would solidify a platform for non-STEM students to learn more about important STEM issues.

“A lot of people are saying today there is no such thing as climate change. It’s a Chinese hoax,” Driscoll said. “Don’t you think that our students, even our non-STEM students, would have some additional information so that they can make up their own minds about that and be able to make informed decisions or maybe to be able to able work with technical people — scientists, engineers in these technical areas.”

Burdick said he is worried that the branding proposal sends the “troubling” message that other disciplines need to be useful for STEM disciplines — creating a hierarchy.

“At this juncture of world history, if a niche is wanted, I would say it should be that all the University’s disciplines are encouraged to see how they might discover and integrate with the humanities,” Burdick said.

Graphics by Emma Comtois | Digital Designer

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