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University of Wyoming

A student walks into the University of Wyoming Union building in Laramie. The future of the school's geography department is uncertain. 

The fate of the University of Wyoming’s geography department is up in the air as it looks to merge with other units on campus, officials say.

“We literally have no idea,” said Bill Gribb, the department chair.

“There’s a deep commitment (at UW) that we teach the knowledge that you get and ways of thinking that one gets from a geography department ... We don’t want to go there,” Provost Kate Miller said of eliminating the department. “We’re looking at a structural problem with a unit that hasn’t been healthy and hasn’t been able to figure it out.”

The problem extends back to last year, when the university was strapped for cash and smaller departments within the College of Arts and Sciences — those with less than 10 faculty — were tasked with merging. Miller said the college “went from something like 31 departments to 21.” American studies and history merged. So, too, did philosophy and religious studies.

But geography didn’t. Gribb said the department tried repeatedly. One attempt failed because it would’ve merged units across different colleges. Another tanked after the dean of the other unit put on the brakes, Gribb said. A third failed because the other department had an interim head and was hesitant to make a move when its leadership was in flux.

Miller was more critical. She said she didn’t want to criticize any faculty member or unit but said that the onus was on geography to find itself a new home.

“They had the opportunity to control their own destiny and they were not able to negotiate a solution where every other small department was able to,” she said.

“I don’t want to especially cast blame, but the obvious conclusion is if eight or nine other little departments were able to find a home and one wasn’t, then basically the process the dean (of arts and sciences) proposed (to merge departments) worked and this department somehow couldn’t take advantage of the process,” she continued.

Gribb said his department worked hard to find a partner, a process complicated by the fact that the discipline involves both physical and social sciences. He said geography, though few in faculty, was vital, productive and busy.

“We have about 85 majors, we have about 20 graduate students, we graduate sometimes between eight and 12 undergrads and two and four grad students every year,” he said. The faculty were frequently published and gave more than 45 presentations across the nation.

“I don’t know what else you can ask for,” he said, noting the department has only six full-time faculty members.

Gribb said groups outside of the university, such as the National Geographic Society, have become involved. They’ve written letters to Miller and UW President Laurie Nichols, he said, lobbying for the department.

Miller also defended the department and said the “discipline” of geography would be taught in some way at the university for years to come. But what exactly that looks like remains to be seen.

The university has specific policies and procedures for reviewing academic programs. Just last year, it eliminated five degree programs that had low enrollment. Miller said geography wasn’t under that formal review process and that no staff members within the department were in danger of losing their jobs.

But Gribb said the department was already struggling. While it has six full-time faculty members now, he and another instructor are retiring after this year. They’ll be down to four, from nine a few years ago. Will the university replace them, he said, or will it just be easier to sweep away geography and fold the remaining faculty into other units?

Miller, speaking generally about the entire university, said the university was hiring for a few dozen positions currently. It likely won’t hire many next year and then will return to more need-based hiring practices after that, she said.

She said she expects the geography department’s future to be settled by year’s end, if not by the end of this summer.

“As you can probably tell, it’s been going on too long,” she said.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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