Akron, Ohio – Soon, the University of Akron (UA) will no longer have a College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. It will become a school within a new college of engineering instead, according to the university's reorganisation plans.
On 29 May the university's trustees agreed to consolidate its 11 colleges and schools into five. This is to address what UA president Gary Miller said was a '$65m to $70m challenge' that comes from both the coronavirus crisis and falling enrolment.
Depending on who you ask, consolidation will either mark the end of the university's international reputation in the field, or it will be a change in name that cuts costs and leaves the school's polymer expertise intact.
Amy Randall is one who fears the worst. She's the executive director of research and development for Firestone Building Products in Nashville, Tennessee. She's also a member of the polymer college's advisory board. She earned her doctorate in polymer science and engineering at UA in 2006.
'Akron will not compete with polymers as a subset of their engineering programme,' Randall said. '[Prospective students] will go get an engineering degree where there's a top-notch engineering programme. I would do the same thing. I would not go there to get a degree within the college of engineering because that's not a nationally known institution.'
Randall said she supports the polymer college and made her comments because she'd like to see it retain its prominence. She said UA already has seen its reputation in polymers diminished in recent years as UA as a whole has shrunk. But, to make the situation worse, she said, the polymer college has lost some high-profile faculty and researchers.
For example, Matthew Becker, a well-known researcher who applies polymer engineering to medical devices, . He left UA in 2019 and took his lab and 13 researchers to Duke University. For over a year before the move he had been vocal about a lack of support for the polymer departments and losing other researchers.
Randall said she keeps in touch with colleagues at the college and she finds hires among its graduates. But she said both becoming harder to do as the school shrinks and people leave.
'What they have been fully destroying when they lose key faculty is, they lose that connectivity with me — the alumni,' Randall said.
She believes that once the polymer college goes, its advisory council will go too. That's part of a loss of autonomy she expects will be damaging if the college becomes a school.
'I consider myself to be a realist, definitely not a pessimist. But I do not see how they're going to be given the opportunity to act autonomously enough to be as successful as they need to be,' Randall said.
Not everyone sees it that way, though.
'I disagree with her. It's a name change, in my opinion,' said one long-time polymer science professor, who asked not to be named.
'The university needs to save money, and what they did was figure out how to get rid of some administrators… But, reputation-wise, I don't think this affects things too much,' he said. He added that UA built its reputation in polymer science before the college was formed in 1988.
University leaders said their intent is not to diminish the role of polymers at UA. But, they said, the university's current challenging financial situation leaves them no choice.
They said they will continue to support polymers, but that a budget for the new school has yet to be set. In the most recent financial year which ended on 30 June 2019, the polymer college budget was $6.7 m. This included $1m for research labs.
'Of course, (the polymer departments) have some significant stature in the scientific and research community. They certainly have a national and international reputation,' said John Wiencek. He was named provost and executive vice president at UA in April. That move was part of efforts to increase enrolment and boost research.
Wiencek is a chemical and biochemical engineer with a doctorate and no stranger to the value of engineering and research.
He said the reorganisation plan was largely complete when he came aboard, and faculty across the university had agreed with it.
The cuts aren't easy to make, he said, but they also may have benefits. For example, as part of the new college of engineering, polymer researchers will work more closely with colleagues from other disciplines,.
'That's exactly part of the intention,' Wiencek said.
The current interim dean of the polymer college, is Ali Dhinojwala. He said undergraduates will gain access to the polymer faculty, it now only deals with post graduates.
'We can leverage some of our research capabilities across more disciplines more effectively. We can participate in undergraduate programmes. There will be more opportunities for merging expertise in polymers with other disciplines,' Dhinojwala said.
Wiencek added that he is not ignoring the financial benefit of UA's reputation in polymer science. This includes attracting international students.
'They are paying the full freight, and that's a good revenue source. That's something that often gets overlooked in terms of what polymer science and polymer engineering is doing' for the university, Wiencek said.
Some of the polymer college's backers accept the school is feeling the impact of choices the university has to make.
Akron-based Goodyear Tire & Rubber has supported the college for a long time and recruits from there. It is watching the situation and supports the plans.
'The University of Akron's engineering and polymer science programmes are important to Goodyear's ability to recruit outstanding local talent. We are proud, long-time supporters of these and many other university programmes,' Goodyear chief communications officer Laura Duda said in an email.
'These are unprecedented times, and we support UA leadership as they make the difficult choices needed to ensure the university's continued success. We are confident that polymer science will continue to be a priority,' she added.
Randall, however, remains concerned. The polymer college already has lost some critical mass and seen its reputation diminished, she said.
'I don't feel hopeful they're even going to keep their current reputation, let alone rebuild it,' she said of the reorganisation plans.
This is an edited version of a story which first appeared in Crains' Cleveland Business