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Every now and again, academic departments are threatened with closure by university administrations.

One current example: Pure Mathematics in Leicester is under threat of closure (making academic staff redundant).

What successful strategies have departments been able to use to see off threats like this?

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    It is pretty hard to imagine a university without a math department. Have you got a reference for the situation at Leicester? Who will teach math to science and engineering students?
    – Buffy
    Jan 31, 2021 at 11:36
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    @Buffy In the UK, service courses are not common. In most universities (NB: not a claim that I can actually back up - it's just that I know of exactly one that doesn't fit the pattern), the engineering department teaches its students the mathematics that they need for their course, and similarly for other departments. Jan 31, 2021 at 11:44
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    @Buffy Almost all UK universities, Leicester included, are heavily funded by general taxation via the funding and research councils (government-appointed bodies). The largest non-government source of funds for most universities (with some exceptions for, eg Cambridge, who have income from historical wealth) is student fees, which are (for domestic students) paid primarily via the government-run Student Loans Company, and underwritten by the government. International student fees are also a significant income source for some universities. Jan 31, 2021 at 22:15
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    Outside of academia, the general rule to follow when you smell a closing coming is that it's time to polish up your curriculum vitae and get it into circulation. It's easier to find a new job when you already have one, and it's easier before the market gets flooded with your colleagues.
    – Flydog57
    Jan 31, 2021 at 22:27
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    1. Do an IPO 2. Hedge funds will short you. 3. Mention your department's stock on r/WallstreetBets 4. Rake in the fame and money :-)
    – einpoklum
    Feb 1, 2021 at 0:06

7 Answers 7

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  • Once you are threatened with closure, it is probably too late to fix your problems.
  • Increase enrollment of new students with marketing.
  • Increase retention of students with better teaching and extracurricular experiences.
  • Seek donations.
  • Find a new source of revenue.
  • Unionize. A union contract can force cross-subsidies from money-making departments to money-losing departments instead of closure. However, this will not work if there are no money-making departments.

These decisions are all about money, and there's no easy way to get money.

A more detailed answer: https://ep3guide.org/toolkit

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    This is probably incorrect for a publicly (i.e. tax) funded institution. The problem is political and the unwillingness of the political class to think broadly enough about the future.
    – Buffy
    Jan 31, 2021 at 13:18
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    @Buffy "The problem is political and the unwillingness of the political class to think broadly enough about the future." - I do not see a change on the horizon. Such tide changes happen every 30-40 years. The pandemic may initiate such a tide change in topics like pharmacy, medicine, epidemiology etc. Another tide change was triggered by the Sputnik shock (in the 50s, not the recent one). Jan 31, 2021 at 14:37
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    @Buffy I can assure you that I do my best, but in the end it is not the effort of one or more or even many people who do, but the situation that suddenly makes it possible. Suitable people to do so are almost always around. The element of scarcity is in the timing, the overall mood and setting, almost never in the people (except in very rare circumstances). Jan 31, 2021 at 17:47
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    @Buffy It's not clear that publicly funded schools are really publicly funded anymore. The State of Texas, which used to underwrite most of UT's budget is now contributing essentially nothing. UT operates like a private school at this point, working mostly with big donors and charging high tuition to make the school run.
    – B. Goddard
    Jan 31, 2021 at 21:25
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    @AnonymousPhysicist This is in the UK, not the US. Things are very different in this regard. Jan 31, 2021 at 21:55
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This is, in fact, the second time that Leicester's maths department has faced these kind of threats. The previous time (in 2016), they backed down following a petition and other objections organised by a variety of mathematicians.

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    Interesting - I had assumed petitions would be ignored, as they don't seem to affect universities financially, and any reputational damage among stakeholders the university cares about (which would exclude the academic discipline concerned) would probably be minimal. Is it clear that petitions and other PR efforts have been effective in the past?
    – user108903
    Jan 31, 2021 at 12:03
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    Well, Leicester threatened to do something similar in 2016, and it delayed it for four years, so it has certainly worked at least once in Leicester specifically. Jan 31, 2021 at 21:54
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    @user108903 it all depends where on the scale you are. If it's a marginal decision it's much easier to tip the scales with moderate amounts of pushback, even if it's just a petition and/or some sit ins. Sometimes, the initial proposals are just 'trial balloons' or negotiating tools. it's a much different story if the money just isn't there and they absolutely have to make deep cuts to continue operating.
    – eps
    Jan 31, 2021 at 22:41
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Check with whatever accreditation outfit your school uses. I was once at an engineering school and the engineering faculty really thought that they could teach the "math their students needed" and would really liked to have gotten rid of the math department. But whatever accreditation body they used to have an accredited engineering program insisted that they have a real math department staffed by real mathematicians.

So the answer might be "if you close your math department, you'll lose your accreditation." And who wants to send their kid to an unaccredited school?

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    I don't know how Brexit affected accreditation, but I was under the impression that accreditation wasn't that important in the UK.
    – MSalters
    Feb 1, 2021 at 9:20
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    @MSalters accreditation in the American sense doesn't really exist for the most part, it's web of trust backed by government organized evaluations of procedure. Having said that, some of the more vocational engineering type degrees are audited by professional societies.
    – origimbo
    Feb 2, 2021 at 12:02
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    @origimbo My engineering professor told me in Canada that it's a web of trust back by corporations. The corporations told the government "back off, just let us do our business" and the government said "yessir". Makes me wonder who is going to teach the physicists math.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 3, 2021 at 5:38
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    Closing "Pure mathematics department", is not the same as closing "math department". Please see my answer below in case looking for a longer explanation.
    – SeF
    Jan 16 at 18:15
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First of all, let me say that I find what is happening at Leicester utterly horrible.

However, the truth is that pure mathematicians do, in general, tend to have a disdain for applied work. In not a few places "mathematics departments", which originally contained within them areas such as statistics or computer science, tended to eject any type of applied field and let them create their own departments, while leaving only the purest of the purest within the administrative division labelled "mathematics". This attitude is now coming back to bite them.

As a long-term strategy, it might serve mathematics departments well to maintain more diversity in their research focus, and not segregate "pure" and "applied" research. After all, there isn't really a very clear line between "pure" and "applied": a single researcher may do some of both, and some types of research touch on both. If the University of Leicester did not have two clearly separated administrative divisions labelled "pure math" and "applied math", then they could not pull this off.

This is not meant as criticism, but as a pragmatic suggestion.

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    "This attitude is now coming back to bite them." Very well said, but is not just an attitude, it is an entire discipline. The difference between pure and applied maths is very well defined, and it has its history, being the pure math born in the thirties and for very specific reasons. Justifying the existence of "Pure mathematics" has been debated since then. Please see my answer below for more details who would not fit this comment.
    – SeF
    Jan 16 at 18:18
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If the academic department offers courses that directly contribute to the university's mission and vision, then this can be used to justify its continued existence. For example, a religiously-affiliated university would not close a theology department even if the department has dwindling enrollment.

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    I saw a news story recently saying that a religious university was, in fact, closing its religion department. Jan 31, 2021 at 21:28
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Sounds like an interesting story. Any details you remember that would help in finding this university? Feb 1, 2021 at 17:25
  • Well, Liberty University is cutting back in its Divinity department. That would be a bit like MIT de-emphasizing engineering: insidehighered.com/news/2019/06/17/…
    – Flydog57
    Feb 2, 2021 at 4:10
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https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/crisis-looming-u-s-colleges-not-just-because-pandemic-n1235338

At least in the US, the outlook for many universities is utterly dire. Enrollments have plummeted due to the virus, but at least in the US education has been headed towards a major correction for some time. Many will go bankrupt, or be gobbled in an acquisition or merger. Mergers and acquisitions almost always mean redundancies, either by thinning a department or eliminating it entirely.

Thus, the answer to the OP is that it greatly depends on why exactly a department might be eliminated. In some cases there may be strategies that can be employed to save a program if it's a marginal case (such as the petition mentioned in another answer). However, in many cases the best thing you can do if the writing is on the wall is to polish the resume and get out ahead of everyone else.

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Making the studied subject useful at something would be a good start.

In the specific case, the definition of "pure mathematics" deserves an historical introduction, to make clear it has nothing to do with the problem-solving mathematics. It is a subject that was founded only in the thirties by the Bourbaki group in France. The group was chasing the goal of finding a complete and coherent foundation of mathematical analysis, since few members of the groups had found some counterexamples in the Gourstat's book used back then.

The complete detachment from physics, and consequent creation of theories descending only from axioms, where no single problem is ever solved, is what characterises the "pure" approach established back then.

Fortunately or not, Goedel incompleteness theorem wiped out the possibility of the coherent and complete theory sought by Bourbaki for good. Despite this event, the branch of "pure mathematics", as it fits very well with the academic environment and the need of a hierarchy not based on merit (if no problem is solved, who will tell who deserves a promotion and how does not), is still a subject per se, and it had become as well as a pedagogical methodology (and a detrimental one, according to many).

Interesting to notice that there have never been such a thing as "pure mathematics" before Bourbaki, having maths always something applied to solve real problems for the entire history of humanity: finding algorithms, and generalisations only when it was possible to apply a solution found in one instance to solve a wider range of problems. Archimedes, Gauss or Euler would have not understood the question: "are you a pure mathematician?".

To the commenters distressed at the idea of a university without a math department, they can be reassure that "pure mathematics" has nothing to do with the mathematics they have studied for the A-level, or the mathematics they know of as a tool to solve problems.

Besides the theoretical groundlesness of pure mathematics, as mathematically proven by Goedel, the "pure" mathematics studies certainly have a detrimental effects on their students. I recently interviewed a candidate with a pure mathematics background, graduated with full marks with a thesis on a subject he was not able to explain during the interview, who turned out to have never heard of graph theory. Also he heard of the existence of differential equations, but as something for another department, not for him, so he had never solved one.

There is the curious situation of an increasing amount of industries thirsty for mathematical talents, as problem solvers and algorithms developer, and the "pure" mathematics department is producing graduates with the title of mathematicians who are crippled by too much useless theory, lost in a machinery of details, and unable to solve anything or compute anything. Leaving the abstract manipulation of symbols, and teaching Algorithms and Differential Equations ("with their applications", as purists like to put it) instead of axiomatic theories closed in boxes, would be the best strategy to keep the maths departments alive, and provide students with capabilities other than knowledge.

---- Edit:

I must have touched a point, since all my posts have been downvoted shortly after writing this one. Bringing down the reputation of the author instead of talking about ideas, now, that's a strategy never used before! .-)

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    I suppose you don't think there should be philosophy or literature departments either? Jan 16 at 18:13
  • I think there should be, as long as they are not called "pure engineering", and as long as they provide students with tools and knowledge to face the outside world, and be independent thinkers.
    – SeF
    Jan 16 at 18:21
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    I disagree. Graph theory is a relatively new branch of mathematics, and not historically all that important. I'd be disappointed in a philosopher who had never heard of Heidegger, but wouldn't consider it disqualifying. (I'll add that Wittgenstein was quite ignorant of the history of philosophy.) Jan 16 at 18:52
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    Euclid was a pure mathematician. Jan 16 at 18:53
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. Jan 16 at 20:12

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