Critical mass re-established

Mergers. They happen frequently in the business world. Just open a newspaper and read the headlines.

But, in academia the wheels turn substantially slower and change is not as quickly embraced. Even faculty members in Washington State University’s newly formed School of Economic Sciences (SES) would say amen to that.

The school officially was formed July 1, 2004, when the Department of Economics in the College of Business and Economics and the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources were merged.

At the time, the merger may have been the only alternative those departments had. And though it came complete with the blessing of the administration and Faculty Senate, the formation process isn’t over. There is still, to quote Jerry Lee Lewis, “a whole lot a shakin’ goin’ on.”

Opportune time
Formation of the SES comes at an opportune time, when the Faculty Senate and administration are reviewing the university’s academic structure and considering possible plans for realignment — splitting, creating, moving and/or merging academic units to:
• better reflect the university’s priorities
• position colleges and departments to better serve students
• reflect changes and needs in business, industry and the community
• become more efficient
• encourage collaboration
• better position programs for recognition and funding
(For more information on the realignment effort, see the March 2 issue of WSU Today, posted online

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Provost Robert Bates says he is “quite pleased with the progress that has been made” in forming the SES, “especially considering it is the first time we have ever merged departments from different colleges.

“It’s a model we can look to when bringing together departments with common goals and visions.”

So, how did the SES merger come about and how has the process gone?

In the beginning
The SES merger, as well as the current WSU realignment process, is not something that happened overnight. It is the result of 20 or more years of insufficient state funding, reprioritizing, growing enrollment demand, stagnant faculty salary levels, and changes in business, industry, technology and curricula. And, with a projected $1.6 billion state deficit still looming on the horizon, there is little hope of a dramatic reversal in funding patterns in the near future.

Ron Mittelhammer, who has been a part of the Ag Econ faculty since 1977, said over the past 20 years there has been a steady “erosion of resources” to both departments. Economics declined from 26 to 11 full-time faculty and one temporary faculty. Ag Econ dropped from 31 to 20 faculty.

“The two departments looked at each other three years ago and said, ‘This is critical. We’re getting dangerously close to having an insufficient critical mass of faculty and resources to be able to offer a viable economics Ph.D. program, which endangers the Ag Economics Ph.D. program as well,’” said Mittelhammer, who is now SES director.

Although they were based out of separate colleges, the two units had developed a “coordinated” Ph.D. program, with Ag Econ supplying most of the econometrics portion, and the Economics Department supplying most of the micro and macro economics portion.

“We realized that something needed to be done,” Mittelhammer said. “So, after considering what options we had available, we proposed a merger.

“The faculty clearly recognized that it was in our mutual interests to cooperate, in order to re-establish critical mass, re-establish scope and expertise in research collaborations, and search for efficiencies that could be gained in program delivery.”

The merger idea was presented to both the Provost’s Office and to the college administrations. Administrators “understood and appreciated the effort,” and assured the departments that any efficiencies or savings realized could be fully kept by the SES to support and improve the merged program.

“That was important because we didn’t want to go through the merger and become more efficient just to be further downsized,” said Mittelhammer. “It was an opportunity to get both bigger and better.

“They also realized that we were not the Lone Ranger, and that similar problems and opportunities likely existed in many other places throughout the university.”

The mechanics
Next, the two departments each selected three faculty representatives. Those six representatives began holding weekly meetings. The goal was to hammer out a joint merger agreement. After each meeting, those representatives returned to their departments to discuss merger proposals and issues with their colleagues. Then each department would vote independently on various aspects of the merger proposal.

This pattern, Mittelhammer said, went on for “months and months and months,” involving many meetings.”

Once the joint merger proposal was approved, the two departments began meeting, working and voting as one department.

The provost then reviewed the proposal in detail and sent it back with comments and requests for clarification. One thing Bates requested was a list of “three or four areas of excellence in which the school would excel over time.”

Those issues were addressed and the proposal was returned to the Provost’s Office, where it gained approval by both Bates and the administration. A short time later, it was approved by the Faculty Senate. At that point the two departments were dissolved and the SES was born.

“We are no longer separate in any way, except for physical location, which is targeted to be solved by July 1 of this year,” said Mittelhammer. “We are the School of Economic Sciences, with one faculty, one administration and one identity. There are still faculty who specialize in agricultural economic research and teaching, some in other subfields of economics research, and some who bridge both groups.”

Four keys to success
Robert Rosenman, associate director of the SES, says the four keys to achieving a successful merger have been and continue to be:
• identifying areas of commonality
• letting go of the past and focusing on the future
• striving to understand and respect other professional and departmental perspectives
• focusing on what will “work best for the college and students, and not necessarily me.”
“You have no chance of going forward unless people are willing to focus on the good of the organization and their team, not themselves,” said Rosenman. “You can’t look at ‘how I can cut the best deal for me.’

“We really did check our egos at the door and approached it with a team perspective … of building a better academic unit that will benefit everyone who is in it.

“One of the worst things you can do is say, ‘This is how we have always done it.’ You have to look forward, not backwards,” said Rosenman.

New options
Although the two departments had some things in common, they have been working steadily to resolve a variety of differences: — policies and rules regarding graduation, undergrad curricula, tenure and evaluation guidelines, strategic plans, funding rules, departmental cultures, evaluation outlines, benchmarks, learning goals, assessment tools and a host of day-to-day procedures. Plus, underlying it all are two different faculty perspectives — theoretical and empirical oriented economics.

Their ongoing efforts are opening up a variety of new opportunities. For example, general economics faculty are seeing opportunities through Extension to work with business, industry and community representatives, while maintaining their responsibilities in teaching and research. They also are collaborating on new projects that could generate grants, and identifying places where they can share teaching duties and free one another up for new ventures.

Meanwhile, SES faculty members are continuing to meet weekly to chart out their future and recreate that synergy and critical mass that once was in jeopardy.

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