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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Departments need their own ‘Excellence’

    Ryan Johnsoncolumnist
    Ryan Johnson

    Focused Excellence is different things to different people: Good. Bad. Creative. Destructive. Long-term. Short-term. But regardless of what people call it, their focus is on the UA administration and how it uses Focused Excellence to control the fate of departments.

    It’s good to be a strong department at the UA today. Astronomy, hydrology, optical sciences and management information systems have bright futures in terms of support from the university and stand to be among the largest beneficiaries of Focused Excellence.

    For weaker departments, it’s time to take action. Struggling programs must improve their performance now, or risk being labeled as burdens on university finances.

    But what about middle-of-the-road departments, those that the university clearly won’t cut but that aren’t on the “”excellent”” list, either?

    While it may seem that those programs are off the radar of Focused Excellence, neither stressed nor distressed, it would be dead wrong to think that President Likins’ plan doesn’t apply to them as well.

    In fact, in some respects, it is the way in which these departments react to Focused Excellence that will determine its success.

    “”That whole issue of defining what excellence is has to happen at a department level,”” said John Olsen, department head for anthropology. “”Focused Excellence is a top-down process, but it can’t be strictly a top-down process.””

    Likins himself stressed the importance of department-level investment in Focused Excellence, saying, “”The concept works only if it pervades the culture of the institution, so every college and every department adopts the same commitment to excellence.””

    One strategy departments could pursue mimics Focused Excellence directly. By focusing on fewer subfields within a discipline, the department can be strong with fewer resources than if it were to focus on all subfields.

    For sociology, that might mean focusing on quantitative methods. For geography, that might mean remote sensing. For dance, ballet.

    The economics department, one that would like to be on the excellent list, has already attempted to implement that strategy. The department flew high in the 1990s, with 31 faculty members and an experimental economics contingent that was the best in the country. But gradual defections, culminating in the departure of Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith in 2001, knocked the department down to 19 faculty members.

    In an attempt to reverse that trend, the department has implemented strategies found in the Penn State University Strategic Plan of 1996, which seems to mirror Focused Excellence. “”Concerns for breadth of coverage will never drive any of the hiring,”” it states. “”Excellence comes from depth, not breadth.””

    It says that the best departments have a strong “”core”” – in the case of economics, microeconomic theory and econometrics. Strong people in the core improve people in all other subfields and produce better graduate students.

    President-elect Robert Shelton has noted how interconnectivity can make the benefits of strong departments spill over into other departments, and the economics department is trying to do just that by improving the subfield of industrial organization, which relates directly to other aspects of business.

    For other departments, excellence lies in synergy and efficiency. Olsen says that for anthropology, it was found in more closely linking all of the department’s subfields.

    “”We’re looking at each of those subdisciplines and restructuring them in a way that gives greater synergy. We’re shifting emphasis a bit here and there. For example, we’re pedagogically creating a stronger link between biology and culture.””

    When departments blame the administration for being vague on what Focused Excellence means, they’re missing the point. It’s up to every department on campus to take the basic philosophy and implement it in a way that makes the department stronger.

    For the university, but more importantly for the state Legislature, departments that are strong bring external benefits to the state. Otherwise, they’re just receiving subsidies and are dead weight.

    Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies senior. He can be reached at

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