The Fate of Anthropology at WMU: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

With no tenure-track hires since 2008, the WMU Department of Anthropology has been struggling under a lack of institutional support. Recently, some ANTH faculty and students have reported that they are receiving mixed messages from the administration about whether the department is slated for elimination.

Here is what we know:

  • The Department of Anthropology comprises four programs (archaeology, biological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology) at the undergraduate and master’s level, in addition to a variety of general education offerings.
  • In fall 2014, some ANTH faculty expressed concerns that ANTH was experiencing a secret but deliberate “teach out.” The dean denied this.
  • In late spring 2015, ANTH faculty were collectively informed that they had been slated for closure or merger but that plans were now equivocal. A merger or closure was still possible, the faculty were told, but the department might still remain open.
  • In January 2016, faculty were told that closure was still possible and encouraged to “plan.” They were also encouraged to consider eliminating their graduate program. Since then, several ANTH faculty members have reported that they continue to hear conflicting information about the future of the department from their interim chair and the interim CAS dean.
  • The conflicting information includes a scenario in which the department would be moved into another existing department (as yet unidentified). Another scenario floated to ANTH faculty is that their department would be broken up and the faculty obliged to find other departments to transfer their tenure lines.
  • ANTH graduate students have expressed concerns about the availability of graduate courses for Fall 2016 and about whether they will continue to be funded. They also report receiving conflicting information from the interim chair and interim dean.
  • When Fall 2016 classes were posted on GoWMU in February, no graduate courses appeared among the listings for Fall 2016, despite there being a cohort of returning graduate students who have not yet completed their coursework.
  • Some graduate students report having been directed to enroll in undergraduate ANTH courses in the fall.
  • When a faculty member from another department asked at the March 3, 2016, meeting of the Faculty Senate why there were no graduate course offerings in ANTH for fall, the CAS interim dean disagreed that there were no courses being offered.
  • In response to student and faculty concerns about the lack of graduate course offerings, two graduate courses have since been added to the fall schedule.
  • The March 23 meeting of the WMU Board of Trustees was attended by approximately 20 anthropology graduate and undergraduate students, seven of whom addressed the board during the public comment period. All expressed serious concerns about what might happen to ANTH and the value of their degrees.
  • The ANTH students’ public comments at the March 23 meeting of the Board of Trustees can be viewed in the video of the meeting, linked here. (Their comments begin at 1:29:35.)
  • One student, an Iraq war veteran, published his comments as a letter to the editor of the Western Herald on March 18. His letter is linked here.
  • In response to the students’ comments at the Board of Trustees meeting, CAS interim dean Keith Hearit said, “If it was our intention to close anthropology, we would have done it last year in the Academic Program Review.” He is quoted in this MLive article, and his response can also be viewed on the video.
  • Interim Dean Hearit’s comments at the board meeting on March 23 seem to contradict a statement he made earlier in the week. “At this point, neither the department faculty nor the college has made any definitive decisions about the future of the Anthropology Department, but we are exploring the best ways to maintain its programs,” he wrote in an email to ANTH faculty and students on March 21. “Short-term, there are no plans to close the department as an administrative unit or cut any programs; longer-term, it is clear that the current staffing won’t justify a distinct administrative unit, and that there will be some changes in academic programs.”
  • WMUK reports that in response to the students’ comments, “WMU President John Dunn said it was important that fears about a closure don’t become self-fulfilling. Dunn suggested that could happen if prospective students get the wrong idea about the program.” President Dunn’s comments can also be viewed in the video.
  • The university has accepted graduate applications to anthropology for Fall 2016 admission, including a nonrefundable $50 fee from each prospective student. However, new graduate students are not being admitted for Fall 2016.
  • Anthropology students are not responsible for what is happening in the WMU Department of Anthropology.
  • No program in ANTH was recommended by the provost for “Restructuring” or “Elimination,” according to the Academic Program Review and Planning Final Report 2014-15.
  • Programs designated for CQI “should prepare plans for advancement and enhancement that address ways to enhance current quality or demonstrate increasing program distinctiveness through annual strategic planning and assessment reports” (p. 9), according to the APR&P Final Report 2014-15.
  • If the administration plans to delete a program or make organizational changes to an academic unit, they must follow a formal process that involves the department faculty, the College Curriculum Committee, and the Faculty Senate, as set out in Senate curriculum change policies and procedures.
  • ANTH students have started a petition in support of the WMU Department of Anthropology.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • Why this is happening. In addition to receiving conflicting information about what will happen to their department and the programs in it, faculty members have also received conflicting explanations for what the administration hopes to achieve by merging,  restructuring,  or eliminating it.
  • Whether there is an actual plan being implemented by the provost and the interim dean that they are choosing not to share with faculty or whether they are simply taking advantage of the depletion of a department that has been starved for a number of years.
  • Why the provost, interim dean, and interim chair would disseminate conflicting information to students and faculty.
  • Whether other departments or programs might be experiencing similar destabilization. (As of Wednesday afternoon, March 30, it appears that at least two other departments at WMU may be in similar situations.)
  • How WMU can maintain its standing as a national research university without a Department of Anthropology, and how the discipline can survive the disinvestment of the university’s senior leadership, in contravention of the provost’s own recommendations in the Academic Program Review and Planning Final Report 2014-15.
  • Why the senior administrative leadership is not held accountable for its repeated failures to lead in an honest, transparent way. Whether they are unwilling or simply unable to foster a culture of open communication that honors the foundational values of shared governance and academic freedom, the lack of a clearly articulated administrative vision for units like ANTH undermines the quality of our programs and our strength as a cohesive institution.
  • How faculty can be expected to maintain or improve programs without resources and demonstrable institutional commitment. The destabilization of ANTH detracts from robust educational opportunities for our students and, instead, has generated distrust and confusion.

As one ANTH faculty member writes:

“There is no neat narrative here other than the fact that this crisis is completely due to administrators telling us for an entire year that we had been slated for closure or merger and that it may happen, probably will happen, could happen, may not happen, will happen. I don’t know how to capture the reality of administrative double-speak that has broken the spirits of an entire unit. “

1 thought on “The Fate of Anthropology at WMU: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

  1. Thanks for putting all this tougher, Lisa. I know this involved a lot of work.


    Sent from my iPad


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