Petitions oppose “Reimagining LAS” initiative


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Mackenzie Bodell

In response to the Reimagining LAS initiative, petitions have been circulating campus urging a reconsideration of the budget cuts. 

Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences released a multi-year initiative to optimize its budget on Feb. 23. This initiative, called Reimagining LAS, is an initiative to adjust the LAS budget in response to student demand and the changing enrollment numbers.

At the start of the fall semester, LAS had an annual budget deficit of $11.4 million, relative to a $105 million operating budget, which has been expected to grow to an annual deficit of $15 million by fall 2025. 

This announcement was ill-received by several LAS department chairs, faculty and students. One of the larger budget cuts was a 35% cut to the history department. History faculty members have expressed their anger over the last couple of months. 

“We had just gone through a really rigorous seven-year evaluation by outside evaluators that had said that our program was excellent and that we were, in a lot of ways, a model department that did extremely well on lean resources,” said distinguished professor of history Pamela Riney-Kehrberg. “We weren’t expecting [the budget cut] to happen at all.” 

According to Riney-Kehrberg, this was the external review that each department has every seven years.

In April, an email was sent to Dean Beate Schmittmann, President Wendy Wintersteen and the Provost’s office by Michael Belding with various petitions and documents urging a reconsideration of the initiative and its impact on the department. 

Belding is a Ph.D. Candidate in Rural, Agricultural, Technological and Environmental History. 

There were three petitions linked in Belding’s email. The first petition is being circulated among alumni of the Department of History’s graduate programs. 

The second petition is being circulated among Iowa State University graduate students not enrolled in a history program but who took coursework from the department at either the graduate or undergraduate level. 

The third petition is the most recent one added to the circulation, to be signed by other supporters of the history department and other affected departments. 

Belding said at the end of the email that he will be sending Schmittmann weekly updates of the petition. 

As of Monday, the alumni petition has 69 signatures, the graduate students from other programs who took history coursework petition was up to 27 and the general public petition was up to 43.  

In the four-page long letter addressed to Schmittmann, Belding says, “Iowa State University, largely with you as its instrument, has undermined the [history] department. Desiring the closure of the graduate programs, which will take many years, and demanding that the department cut its spending by one-third over the next two years – that this desire will do nothing to satisfy – is but the latest example.”

In response to the letter and the attached petitions, Schmittmann wants to acknowledge the concerns voiced by Belding and others on campus. 

“I honor and respect their passion and advocacy for their disciplines, and I also understand the unease and anxieties that are created by the budgetary challenge we are facing,” Schmittmann said. 

While LAS faculty and students have expressed their anxieties, there are even alumni who share that anxiety and frustration.

When the announcement first came out, Kevin Mason, an Iowa State history graduate program alumni, posted on Twitter his anger regarding the “proposed gutting of the Iowa State University Department of History and the discontinuation of the graduate program.” 

“History is a department that touches the entirety of the university as a part of the core and then also has significant numbers of people in it, especially in the social studies and education programs that go on to work throughout the state in our education system,” Mason said. 

One of the main factors going into the budget cuts revolved around student enrollment. Schmittmann looked back on enrollment numbers going back ten years. History was one of the majors that had seen a larger drop in enrollment compared to other LAS majors. 

In the fall of 2011, the history department had 352 undergraduate students enrolled and 39 graduate students. By fall 2020, that number had dropped to 206 and 26, respectively. That is a drop of roughly 40%. 

The total faculty headcount in the fall of 2011 was 22. In fall 2020, the headcount was 25. 

To give perspective to these numbers, from fall 2011 to fall 2020, overall undergraduate enrollment had increased by over 30%. Graduate enrollment stayed relatively the same. 

Computer science has seen a substantial increase on the opposite side of the spectrum of enrollment. In the fall of 2011, computer science only had 393 students. By the fall of 2020, enrollment had nearly tripled to 1071 students. The total faculty headcount in fall 2011 was 30, and in fall 2020, it had grown to 39. 

Another major of interest is sociology, where undergraduate enrollment went from 161 students to 507 students. 

While all departments are supposed to meet their budget, how each department does that is up to them. Departments are being given the chance to decide their own course of action. 

Schmittmann is aware of faculty and students’ concerns and anxiety across all departments.  

“I want to acknowledge the very understandable reaction,” Schmittmann said. “I want to thank people for the fact that they care, and at the same time, I also want to remind them that things about us change all the time, and higher education has changed a lot over the years.”

Schmittmann also wants to reassure students that students currently enrolled will be given every opportunity to finish their degree, regardless of what budget cuts are decided.

One of the more large-scale concerns that some members of Iowa State faculty have is that Iowa State is going in the direction of being a non-comprehensive university. 

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re going back to being Iowa State Agricultural College, really just jettisoning the parts of the university that they decided to build about 60 years ago,” Riney-Kehrberg said. 

Schmittmann has emphasized that Iowa State will continue to be a comprehensive university. 

“Iowa State is certainly a comprehensive university and will remain a comprehensive university,” Schmittmann said. 

Schmittmann believes that some of the confusion comes from the university returning to the use of its full name, Iowa State University of Science and Technology. 

While Schmittmann claims that Iowa State will remain a comprehensive university, some people do not believe that. 

“​​We can say one thing, but that doesn’t make it true,” Belding said. “The dean might say that, no, we do not want to be a non-comprehensive university, but given what a university is, given how a university is different from college, given how long Iowa State has been a university instead of a college, given how long graduate education in history has been possible at Iowa State, is that actually true?” 

Belding mentioned the difference between a college and a university. The Morrill Act made it possible for states to establish public colleges funded by developing or selling associated federal land grants.

He explained that “land-grant universities” exist because decades after the Morrill Act and after its namesake’s death, higher education leaders at land-grant colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts decided to enlarge their institutions’ size and reach. 

Expanding those institutions meant turning them into universities that applied themselves not only to agricultural and engineering knowledge and outreach but to knowledge and outreach in all disciplines.

Belding explains that the difference between a college and a university is important in this specific context because planning documents like ‘Reimagining LAS’ tell a historical tale. These documents reference the past in their assessment of the present and the vision of the future. 

“That historical tale is not necessarily grounded in historical truths that are verifiable in the record,” Belding said. “If it isn’t, administrators are creating a truth deficit and warping reality, which is hardly what education administrators [or public officials] should be doing.” 

The Reimaging LAS initiative is a multi-year process that has just begun. No final decisions have been made yet. All departments are in the process of exploring their options. Discussions with departments will happen over the summer and into the fall semester. 

Schmittmann identified several goals of the Reimagining LAS initiative.

  1. Continue to meet the demand for core and foundational education courses for all Iowa State University students, providing a quality educational experience while being as financially efficient as possible.

  2. Offer a well-curated selection of general education courses designed to help students develop critical skills for successful lives and careers, and provide those courses with attention to quality as well as financial viability.

  3. Offer high-quality programs for our LAS undergraduate majors in response to student and employer demands.

  4. Offer master’s programs in areas where there is significant demand as documented by enrollment, tuition revenue, and employer demand.

  5. Offer doctoral programs in fields where LAS research programs have recognized national or international reputation.

  6. Identify high-demand opportunities and pursue growth there.

Schmittmann said a complete plan should be finalized in early 2023 with the aim to meet the budget by July 2025.