Smaller departments struggle to attract students, face consolidation

Students and administrators feel caught in a “holding pattern”

Diane Newberry, News Editor

Ric Auman, an anthropology major in his junior year, still mourns the anthropology department’s loss of former flagship Babcock Hall. 

“There’s a lot of memories there for me,” Auman said. “That’s where I usually sleep.” 

The department’s move to its current position in O’Kelly Hall was a cost saving measure; it simply didn’t make sense anymore to heat an entire building for such a small program. In a particularly chaotic time for the university, a lot is left up in the air for departments such as anthropology who have dwindling enrollment and resources. 

Last fall, in an attempt to combat low enrollment, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Debbie Storrs proposed the creation of a new School of Global and Cultural Studies, which would absorb the anthropology department, philosophy department, American Indian studies, languages and women and gender studies. 

“The idea was to not eliminate any majors,” Brad Rundquist, interim department chair of American Indian studies, said. 

For now, the controversial plan has been put on hold. 

“While there has been positive response from many faculty, there is not sufficient interest across units for us to move forward at this time,” Dean Storrs said  in a January 28 email to faulty. “However, we remain challenged by low enrolled courses in many departments, the trend of declining demand for some majors, and administration needs across small academic units.” 

Interim chair of the anthropology department, Jeffrey Weatherly, says the department is “not going in a good direction.” Currently, there are about 28 students registered as anthropology majors, down 10 from only two years ago, and about half the size of the department’s peak. 

Though the plans to combine with other departments are stalled for now, Weatherly said changes are going to need to be made regardless. Currently, scheduling classes for the department is “chaotic,” which makes it difficult for students to plan their own schedules. Though the department has been hit hard by budget cuts (leading to the loss of two faculty members), Weatherly said the main concern is still enrollment. 

“Given the enrollment right now, if I had those two faculty back, I wouldn’t be able to fill their classes,” Weatherly said. 

As a student, Auman can see the department shifting. 

“You can feel it,” Auman said. “You can feel it literally kind of decaying slowly. They try to hide it pretty well, but there’s always that one professor who tells you all about it.” 

However, Auman still has faith and passion in his chosen department. He praises the faculty and thinks the main problem may be marketing. 

“I think the only difficulty in terms of the classes being offered is advertising because the classes are so awesome,” Auman said. “We had a very good turnout (for upper-level classes about the Aztec, Maya and Inca) because we made fliers about it and those classes had more people than ever before.” 

Though visibility might be one of the main problems for smaller departments, Rundquist said this is a difficult problem to address for the American Indian studies department. 

“We’re really in a holding pattern currently,” Rundquist said. “We haven’t done a lot of promoting of the major. It’s kind of hard to market something when you’re not sure what it’s going to look like.” 

Auman said he feels as though the University of North Dakota isn’t valuing these departments as much as it should, privileging majors that are perceived as producing more lucrative careers. As an immigrant who came to America at the age of 15, Auman says he sees a stark difference between the goals of the education system of his native Philippines and the goals of American universities. 

“Everyone there is seen as an equal,” Auman said. “It’s not because they are seen as moneymakers. It’s because they are seen as individuals. It’s not because, ‘Oh, this department makes a ton more money. We should support this department.’ No. They’re seen as individuals and they look at them as they are, and I think that’s what’s missing here — an overlapping of disciplines.” 

Those in the humanities are starting to worry if they will slip through the cracks in a system that seems to value monetary results over disciplinary diversity and sharing of knowledge. Jeffrey Weatherly says he sees “a real push at the state level and maybe at the cultural level” toward purely vocational education. 

In the coming years at UND, it appears that smaller departments, particularly in the humanities, are going to have to prove their worth to both administration and prospective students. For people like Auman, however, they already have. 

“(Anthropology) gave me a different perspective on the world,” Auman said. “It’s not even about competing about who’s the smartest. It’s about learning. It’s continual learning.”