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Arts & Sciences faculty pans split-school notion

By Dan Heuchert

In remarks to the Faculty Senate in September, University President John T. Casteen III raised the idea of restructuring the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, which he suggested may be unwieldy in size and scope, and invited faculty members to comment.

The early returns are in, and it appears that the Arts & Sciences faculty are pretty happy with the status quo.

Comments following a panel discussion of the issue -- presented as part of the Oct. 26 Arts & Sciences faculty meeting -- were overwhelmingly against a split, which would separate either the sciences or the fine and performing arts (or both) into separate schools.

When Arts & Sciences dean Melvyn Leffler asked for a show of hands at the discussion's conclusion, only three of the approximately 60 faculty members in attendance favored a split. Most faculty appeared concerned about the potential dimunition of a broad-based, liberal arts education for students enrolled in a science or arts school, which they suggested would be more professional or pre-professional in nature.

Biology professor Janis Antonovics -- one of the three proponents -- began the panel discussion by describing his vision of a split, and laying out arguments for and against such a move.

Under his plan, the so-called "hard" sciences in the College would unite with the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the basic sciences in the School of Medicine to form the College of Science and Technology. The Medical School's clinical faculty would simply be assigned to the Medical Center, and the remainder of the Arts & Sciences would become the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, he said.

The Virginia 2020 Commission on Science and Technology -- of which Antonovics is a member -- declined to endorse such a split, but suggested it be studied further. (The Commission on the Fine and Performing Arts also discussed a separate school for the arts, but rejected the idea.)

Antonovics suggested that a science and technology school would ease collaboration between scientists across disciplines, especially in scientific research that bears little resemblance to that conducted elsewhere in Arts & Sciences. Further, the sciences' current minority status within Arts & Sciences leaves them at a political disadvantage, he said; uniting them with faculty from Engineering and Medicine would give them better clout.

He acknowledged, however, that a split would be an administrative nightmare, and that the School of Medicine would be unlikely to give up its basic science research enterprise, a major source of funding.

Idealists, he said, would favor the status quo because of a "common bond of scholarship" among all faculty, while optimists might forecast increased interaction between science and humanities faculty. He concluded, "I don't see any reason to stay together unless you're an idealist or an optimist."

Antonovics found little support. Fellow panelist Judith Shatin, chair of the music department and a member of the Fine and Performing Arts Commission, followed with a strong defense of broad-based liberal arts education. "Typically, schools of art are professional and pre-professional," she said, later reading a letter from a former student who transferred to an arts school, then asked to transfer back to U.Va. in search of a more well-rounded education.

Her view was later echoed by others, who noted that U.Va.'s liberal arts education is an institutional strength that ought not be yielded.

Psychology professor Dennis Proffitt, another panelist, noted that a split would divide his department down the middle, since some psychologists focus on natural science and some on social science.

"What's broken? What do we need to fix?" he asked rhetorically. Barriers to inter-school collaborations don't need to be pushed around, he said, but lowered.

An audience member noted that with the progress in stem-cell research and the success of the Human Genome Project, science and humanities need more -- not less -- interaction, in order to explore the ethical questions being raised by scientific progress.

A compromise notion -- splitting Arts & Sciences at the level of research and graduate education, but maintaining unity at the undergraduate level -- was also forwarded. Antonovics said that idea "is something that should be discussed further."


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