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Students, faculty worry as MU Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute dissolves

Saturday, March 17, 2012 | 5:49 p.m. CDT; updated 2:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 20, 2012

COLUMBIA — Students and faculty are questioning whether a decision to dissolve MU's Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute was completely thought through.

Provost Brian Foster and Graduate School Dean George Justice announced Monday that the institute would be restructured effective Thursday.

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According to a past Missourian report, Justice said the restructuring is necessary because the graduate school does not have the ability to maintain tenured positions and support for faculty research.

The research component is moving to the MU Office of Research, and a new academic program, probably to be named nuclear science, will be developed within the Graduate School under a new director.

Justice has said repeatedly that the restructuring will not affect current students because their academic program will not change. But some students are worried about indirect affects such as losing lab space, support staff and accreditation of the medical physics program, which has been part of the institute.

Additionally, several faculty and staff members associated with the former institute question whether the decision followed the university's Collected Rules and Regulations.

Timing questioned

Several professors and students have said they knew nothing about the restructuring until the public announcement.

Justice, however, said the process has been a long time coming and referred to the original intention for the institute in 2002 as an experiment that could face changes after being reviewed by an external committee.

The institute's four tenured professors — Sudarshan Loyalka, Mark Prelas, Tushar Ghosh and Robert Tompson — will have to find new departments because of the restructuring.

Loyalka said that the decision could have been handled better and that faculty involved have brought the matter to the attention of the MU Faculty Council.

"At this point, I will only note that there had been no prior discussion with the NSEI faculty, staff and students regarding this particular decision," Loyalka said. "Everyone is affected, some far more than others. In my view, it has violated all good principles of faculty shared governance."

Wilson Watt, a sociology professor and council member, wrote an email to colleagues that said the decision did not seem to him to conform to the university's Collected Rules and Regulations.

Chapter 300 in the Faculty Bylaws states that faculty have "primary and direct authority" in making decisions that directly affect educational programs.

Watt wrote: "Any reorganization of a program or department will have some affect on the delivery of the 'educational program,' and to that extent the Provost should be providing a clear evidence trail of the interaction with the Faculty Council and/or representatives of that body and with the faculty of the NSEI as the primary faculty with the task of carrying out on a daily basis the ‘primary and direct authority’ of the faculty.”

Justice said he thinks the necessary process for restructuring followed the rules.

"We absolutely believe this is indeed in accord with the collected rules," Justice said. "We are not eliminating a program. We are not eliminating faculty positions."

Students express surprise

About a dozen students said they are concerned that the institute was dissolved before a new academic program was clearly defined. They were surprised the decision came after the institute had become so successful, they said.

Although a report about the institute's progress by the external committee in 2010 listed areas in which the institute could improve, a separate report in 2011 by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs praised the institute for being interdisciplinary — the lack of which had been a main criticism of the 2010 report. 

Although the commission's review recommended several changes such as specific roles for co-directors and a clearer curriculum, the students thought it reaffirmed that the institute was successful and did not need to be restructured. The plan to restructure was less well-considered than leaving the previous institute in place, they said.

Justice said the plan is to set up an academic program that will be similar to those of a current master's program in public health and a doctoral program in informatics. These have directors who are in charge and faculty members from various departments who are associated with the academic programs.

Justice said he plans to begin searching for a new director soon, with the goal to have a director in place by July 1.

The new director and involved faculty members will then be in charge of deciding details about the program. Justice said the name of the degree will likely change from nuclear engineering to nuclear science for future students. Degrees for current graduate students will still say nuclear engineering when they graduate.

Students are also concerned what the academic program will look like in the fall semester. Justice said engineering professor Tushar Ghosh, who was in charge of these decisions when the institute was in place, will still be responsible for making them until the details of the new system are straightened out.

Justice said he would not expect a new director who was hired over the summer to make decisions for the fall semester.

Potential problems

Even if the academic programs are guaranteed for current students, they worry that the physical consequences of the restructuring will affect their research.

Currently, the nuclear engineering lab spaces are in the Engineering Building. Doctoral student Veera Rajesh Gutti worries that lab spaces might be moved or disappear without professors having offices in a central location.

Paul Harden, also a doctoral student, said moving lab spaces could hurt in the long term.

"We have lots of delicate equipment that we don’t want to move," Harden said. "If we break it while we move, it could set us back a month or more (in our research)."

Justice said it is "absolutely possible" that the lab spaces might be moved because the dean of the College of Engineering is in charge of assigning lab spaces in the Engineering Building and has a formula for doing so.

Under the institute, "these faculty members have been exempted from these policies," Justice said. "And that’s caused a lot of problems."

Accreditation might be at risk

MU is one of 36 schools with a medical physics program accredited under the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs, according to the organization's website. Ghosh and Loyalka as well as students are concerned that the change in the program could jeopardize this accreditation.

The commission has the ability to take away the accreditation if it thinks the program is different than the one that originally received accreditation.

"We need to have our structure in place," Harden said. "If our structure is falling apart, we have a chance of losing the accreditation."

The accreditation is particularly important for current master's degree students because without it they can’t apply for residency, Harden said. If these students cannot participate in a residency program, it will be much more difficult for them to get jobs in the industry, Harden said.

Justice said the students and faculty are "right to want to make sure the program remains accredited." He said he hopes the program can grow and change in a good way. He said agencies that award accreditation are often looking for positive changes in programs to continuously be improving for future students.

"Programs change all the time, and the accreditation doesn’t go away," Justice said.

Academic changes will be the decisions of the new director and faculty involved with the academic program, Justice said.

"Before we make major changes to the curriculum, we would certainly be consulting with the accreditors," he said.

Staff members jobs on the line

Although the tenured professors’ jobs are guaranteed, the two staff members associated with the nuclear institute, senior secretary Latricia Vaughn and financial officer James Bennett, do not know what their fate will be come July 1.

With the restructuring, they will have to find new departments. Their jobs at the university are not guaranteed, and Justice said the decision about what support staff will be needed for the new academic program will be up to the new director. Justice said he could not comment on individual situations.

The students said Vaughn keeps the program organized and running — doctoral student Jenny Schutte described her as the students' "dorm mom."

"I want to know who’s going to do my job and where I’m going to go,"  Vaughn said.


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