The same week the Purdue Board of Trustees is scheduled to discuss a diversity task force meant to combat inequality on campus, the planned consolidation of 16 departments into six left faculty and department heads feeling frustrated and left out of the conversation, they said.
Several department heads within the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, a school within the College of Liberal Arts, were told Tuesday that they were relieved of their positions, according to an email sent to those heads and provided to The Exponent.
The email sent from within the School of Interdisciplinary Studies to the department heads suggested the school decrease from 16 department heads to six, though the email also stated the original plan was to move toward just three. This reduction was caused by a need to cut costs because of additional financial strain caused by the pandemic, according to the email.
“We are essentially broke,” the email said.
Since then, a Change.org petition started by Global Studies Director Tithi Bhattacharya on Wednesday has garnered more than 2,500 signatures. On Thursday, a second email informed the program heads that one year’s worth of gap funding would be provided by Provost Jay Akridge to allow a “transition period” to prepare programs for the future shift in department leadership.
Bhattacharya is one of the program leaders who was informed that her position would no longer be necessary, she said. She founded the Global Studies program four years ago.
She said the initial announcement of the program consolidation came as a shock, and she’s still processing the newly announced gap funding that is meant to cover the school for one additional year.
“I know all my other program director colleagues run their programs in a similarly passionate, committed manner,” Bhattacharya said, listing off several students in Global Studies who have studied topics like food insecurity and migrants’ living conditions. “This is not a work that we take lightly.”
The Global Studies director said that her program, which currently comprises 45 majors and more than 40 minors, is able to give students individual attention because of how the department is structured. The program is sensitive and responsive to students’ needs, she said, and the consolidation would put that attentiveness at risk.
Many of the program heads who were stripped of their directorship this week were women of color, Bhattacharya said. While many of them were also juggling the work of preparing for the fall term and working as primary caregivers for their families, the women worked to challenge the cost-cutting decision made without their input, she said.
Plus, five of the six new divisions that were initially proposed were to be led by men, she said.
Maren Linett, director of the critical disability studies program at Purdue, confirmed that five men were proposed as division heads, adding that the only woman proposed to lead a division was white.
Linett was another of the 10 directors informed that her program would be worked into a grouping called the “Race, Gender and Intersectionality” division.
“You don’t know a discipline if you're not in it,” said Linett, who established the program at Purdue four years ago. She said that, while she had some help with gathering resources, she completed the majority of the paperwork and organization for the program herself, and was disheartened at the thought of handing the program off to a department head with no background in the area.
She said while the gap funding resolved the immediate issue, it still leaves a struggle for the departments down the road.
“We can’t go through this again in another year,” Linett said, saying she hasn’t been able to focus on her research at all since the shift was announced, with all of her time having been dedicated to fighting the University’s decision.
CLA Dean David Reingold said budget cuts as part of the University’s response to the pandemic were at the crux of the matter — the college was asked to reduce its fiscal year 2021 budget.
The School of Interdisciplinary Studies budget was “reduced less than the average for the other college units,” he said in an email.
Reingold said that even with this budget tightening, the degrees and programs offered in the college have not changed.
“In light of a variety of concerns about the impact on programs, I have asked Provost Akridge, and he has agreed, to provide one year of gap funding to cover academic administrative expenses that were historically covered by the college but have moved to the academic units,” he said. “This will allow the academic unit heads to make choices appropriate to the localized dynamics and needs of their units and faculty. I have shared this change with the Head of Interdisciplinary Studies so that she can move forward as she deems appropriate.”
The SIS head Venetria Patton said she was relieved that the provost and dean identified gap funding for the upcoming year.
“It is much appreciated and creates the opportunity to move forward in a positive and creative way to continue to promote the programs within the School of Interdisciplinary Studies,” she said in an email.
A different email from within the school acknowledges that the budget cuts “had a disparate impact on SIS given our different structure,” per a document provided to The Exponent.
“This reprieve will provide the funding for us to return to our previous administrative structure for this year. There is still uncertainty about the state of the budget and the future of this funding, but it will allow more time to work through these issues with faculty input.”
The lack of faculty input is one of the major problems faculty had with this decision, they say, along with the fact that the 16 departments include many of the few Purdue programs that offer a diverse course catalog.
“It’s just so hypocritical,” Linett said, “to set up a diversity task force and then take away the funding from the programs that focus on diversity.”
The petition calls for a meeting with University administrators to discuss three demands: a reversal of the current restructuring; an increase in resources to support the research contribution made by SIS faculty, affiliates, and graduate students; and a public acknowledgement of the contributions the programs and research make to the improvement of diversity, inclusion and equity in the University community, per the online petition.
“We request that the meeting be held before August 17, 2020 when the restructuring goes into effect,” it reads.
The board of trustees, which is scheduled to discuss the diversity task force, is set to meet at 8:40 a.m. on Friday, starting with its committee meetings.