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Officials, task force remain quiet on future of geology program

Tanner Nalley | Photographer
Geodes sit displayed in the geology program’s home in Bell Hall.

Updated: Nov. 8, 2023, at 1:42 p.m.

The future of the Geological Sciences Program remains uncertain after students and faculty report receiving no update from officials regarding the program’s next steps this semester.

Professors and students in the geology program have yet to hear from Columbian College of Arts & Sciences officials and a faculty task force that the college formed last semester to determine the program’s future after concerns about its lack of tenure-track professors led to fears the program might be terminated. Geology students and faculty said the program is proceeding with the addition of a new faculty member and a new class next semester, but the lack of communication from officials and the task force clouds its path forward.

Officials denied the program’s request to hire another tenure-track professor in spring 2022 but approved the program’s request to hire another full-time faculty member. Professors said last semester that officials did not give any reasoning for denying the request besides needing to determine the future of the program.

“We’re fully functioning and moving ahead as if we’re gonna be here forever,” said Catherine Forster, the director of the program. “Nobody’s told us otherwise.”

Kim Gross, the vice dean for programs and operations, said the task force was asked to look into how the program fits into CCAS curriculum and make recommendations on the best path forward. CCAS is deliberating on options that the task force provided to the college “outlining and discussing” options, she said.

Forster said she hasn’t heard any news from CCAS officials, but the program is still “open for business” and offers both a major and a minor track. Forster said she submitted recommendations to the college about the program in early summer as part of the faculty task force but has not heard back from them.

Forster, who retired last year as the only tenured geology professor, returned to GW this fall to work as a special service faculty for the program, which she still directs while teaching a class this semester.

Forster added that besides submitting recommendations, she requested a meeting with CCAS officials to discuss the program, but they have reportedly not gotten back to her. She said this semester, the program hired James Kerr, an assistant professor of geology, and she plans to request the addition of another faculty member next semester.

“The idea of having a liberal arts school without geology, one of the basic STEM sciences, would be harmful,” Forster said.

Forster said more geologists are located in D.C. than anywhere else in the country because the U.S. Geological Survey — an organization that helps provide scientific data from different earth science fields to support policymaking — is headquartered in Reston, Virginia, and GW is the only University in the District that has a geology program. Forster said geology students have benefitted from partnerships with the USGS in the past.

“This is kind of a hotbed of geology in this area and yet GW is the only University in Washington, D.C., that has a geology program,” Forster said.

Forster added that the geology program used to be its own department about 20 years ago, before she came to the University. She said the program is currently administratively housed under the biological sciences department but has the equipment and specimen collection of a large independent geology department.

“We’re a fully equipped geology department, we don’t need anything else, we have everything and if they’re going to get rid of geology, they’re gonna have to figure out where all these collections go,” Forster said. “They’re incredibly valuable educational collections that we have, that our students are able to take advantage of.”

Forster said the program will offer a new planetary geology course in the spring that will focus on the geology of the solar system as well as different meteors, planets and asteroids.

Kerr, who started at GW this August, said he was first made aware that the geology program was “up in the air” and might be moved to be under a different department or eliminated during his interview process for his position. He said if the program was eliminated, he would not be able to teach introductory level courses and upper level geology classes.

Kerr said he has not had any interaction with the task force and added that the elimination of the geology program would be an issue for geology majors as CCAS would no longer offer upper-level courses necessary to fulfill a geology degree.

“That would be, to say the least, detrimental to people trying to seek a geology degree here,” Kerr said.

Kerr added that geology is a “beneficial” science class for students because it may feel less daunting compared to science classes like chemistry or biology for CCAS students looking to fulfill general education requirements.

“There’s a way in which geoscience, for some people, opens up science to people who don’t see themselves as scientists,” Kerr said.

Cecelia Paparella, a junior studying geology, said her general and major advisers told her that in order to receive credit for Geological Field Methods — a required class for geology majors that is not being offered this academic year — she must either take a summer trip to Italy sponsored by George Mason University or receive credit for a geology internship.

Paparella said she will look into attending the field camp in Italy, but said the added cost of the program creates a financial barrier for some students. She added that the limited number of professors available to teach classes and the few students who register for classes can lead to officials canceling or not offering classes within the program.

“It’s definitely a very unfortunate situation that a lot of us are finding ourselves in right now,” Paparella said.

Gabriela DeSanto, a senior studying geology and teaching assistant in the program, said she and two other geology students met virtually with four University administrators last semester to voice their concerns about the future of the program. DeSanto said she has not heard any updates about the program from GW this semester.

She said she and two other students are in the process of forming the Geological and Earth Sciences Society, an organization for students interested in geology. The new organization will hopefully signal the strength of the geology program to administration, she said.

“We wanted to be able to expand our resources as geology students,” she said.

DeSanto teaches two lab sections of Historical Geology, an introductory-level course often taken to fill a science general education requirement, to roughly 60 students. She said she’s had three or four students express interest to her about minoring in geology.

“We want the program to succeed for all the students below us and prove the importance of it in not just the school but society as a whole,” DeSanto said.

This post was updated to clarify the following:

The Hatchet updated this post to clarify that Forster has not yet heard back from CCAS officials regarding their plans for program’s future.

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