“I think everyone wanted to keep the department intact.” CMC announces plans to create science department independent from Keck

Claremont McKenna College announced plans to withdraw from Keck Science Department to create an independent program with an emphasis in interdisciplinary science in two statements to students and faculty Thursday. This decision comes after two failed attempts to expand the facilities at Keck, and many of the professors said they were surprised by the announcement.

Keck will continue to be a shared department between Pitzer and Scripps Colleges. All three colleges have been meeting to alleviate pressures caused by increased enrollment, especially in the summer of 2017. Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin said that withdrawal from Keck was not the goal of deliberations this summer.

“It turned out to be the way to take the next step forward to make expansion of opportunities for students and faculty possible,” Uvin said.

The Keck faculty received an email Saturday informing them that there would be an update, followed by a full faculty meeting at CMC about “the future of interdisciplinary science at CMC,” according to Chemistry Professor Nancy Williams. She said there were a lot of theories about what was to be announced.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be the status quo,” she said. “We knew the announcement would not just be, ‘We’re still waiting on a building, still talking to donors, still don’t have answers, but the plan is what it’s always been.’”

Dean Uvin said that the news became public as soon as possible, and that faculty input will be sought now that the structural decision has been made.  

“The planning starts now,” Uvin said. “The faculty will be involved in all steps as we go forward.”

Keck Science Department has been in need of a new building for several years, according to professors at Keck. Biology Professor Emily Wiley said if there were more space for labs, the department could hire more tenure-track professors.

“It’s a physical, space, resource limitation,” she said. “We’ve had clear signals from the administrators at all the Colleges that we could hire if we had the space to put people, and that would just alleviate most of the pressures that we’re feeling and the weaknesses in our program.”

Although the department has dealt with and an overdue expansion for many years, Professor of Physics Scot Gould pointed to how successful Keck Science Department has been in that time, especially with unique programs such as the Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence (AISS) and Introduction to Biological Chemistry (IBC).

“Most colleges graduate fewer science majors than the number of students who intend to major in the sciences,” he said. “However, the Keck Science department has historically graduated more. We really are working to help each student achieve their goal in science (or engineering).”

“Was a building achieving these goals and successes?” he asked. “No. It is the remarkable people in this department. People are more important than buildings.”

Professor Williams said the Colleges’ unequal resources probably led to CMC’s decision.

“From CMC’s perspective, the building they wanted build and the number of faculty they want to hire was too big of a check for Scripps and Pitzer to be able to write,” she said.

CMC proposed splitting the science department in 2008 so that faculty would be permanently assigned to certain schools, Gould said. “The idea was pitched with the promise that ‘this will ensure a new building will be built,’” he said. “In that era, CMC really looked into actually doing what CMC is proposing now - building its own science program from scratch.”

Instead, there was a change in the governance, including the hiring of a new Dean, David Hansen, who aimed to heal the loss of trust.

“It took us years to come back from that difficult division that didn’t even happen, but I think he did a really good job that was continued by Deans Preest and Sofia and I think we’ve had a really good relationship with CMC over the last ten years,” Williams said. “I think CMC really wanted to do this in a way that served our students in the best way possible...I think everyone wanted to keep the department intact and to not divide us.”

But some professors feel that there was a lack of transparency in this most recent announcement. Professor Wiley said she would have appreciated being updated about the future of Keck.

“It would have changed planning by faculty and staff had we known it would resolve this way,” she said.  “There may be some financial challenges to fully funding the department through only Scripps and Pitzer, but many of us are optimistic”.

Some Keck professors said they felt disappointed that CMC was withdrawing from Keck. Professor of Biology Anastasia Nagel framed it in terms of physics principles.

“It takes a lot of energy to keep things together,” she said. “Laws of thermodynamics tells us disorder is always increasing, one of the saddest things is when something we have built together and put energy into falls apart.”

Nonetheless, all the professors and administrators we spoke to were confident that both science departments will continue to prioritize the students.

“I'm cautiously optimistic for what this will mean for our students in the long term,” Professor Williams said. “This gives us a path toward doing what we all agreed we need to do which is hire faculty and build buildings and really support our students in a way that we know that we need to provide for.”  

“In the end I know we’re going to be fine because we have such a strong community here and there's so much good energy that’s student centered,” Professor Wiley said. “We’re excited about our program and that’s just going to keep going. I think this will all pass. It’s just a shock right now.”

*This article will update as more information comes in.

Figures by Alice Chen ‘19

Updated Thursday, 8 pm to include Dean Uvin’s statement.

Updated Friday, 11:30 am to include quotes from Professor Scot Gould.

Keck Professors chart updated Friday, 4pm to clarify status of professors.