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Longtime UND professors choose retirement in face of academic cuts

UND philosophy professor Donald Poochigian discusses his decision to apply for two incentive programs -- both a phased retirement and a tenured faculty voluntary separation. Poochigian said he wanted to stay at UND as long as he was able, but changed his mind due to changes in the university’s approach to the philosophy department. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
UND history professor Gordon Iseminger, 84, said Monday he was "disgusted, disappointed and sickened" with the direction of the university. Iseminger, a Chester Fritz distinguished professor and the longest-serving faculty member, is concerned about the future of the humanities at UND.2 / 2

The academic career of UND history professor Gordon Iseminger, 84, might finally be winding down, and he's not happy about it.

The Chester Fritz distinguished professor has spent more than 50 years teaching and researching at the university, during which time he focused largely on European history before turning an eye to more local studies of North Dakota's past. Those studies will continue, he said, though most likely they will not conclude in his campus office.

"I didn't want my academic career to end this way," he said. "I wanted to leave with a good feeling, but I'm not going to have that."

Rather than a bittersweet departure, Iseminger said Monday he's just feeling bitter about announced changes to the history department he described as part of a wider "throttling of the humanities" at UND.

Iseminger is now awaiting a response to his application for a phased retirement, a two-year voluntary separation program offered earlier this year as part of a wider effort to reduce the university's personnel costs. If granted, the phase-down would gradually decrease his workload until he left the university for good at the end of the 2018-19 academic year. The separation programs are intended to ease an expected campuswide budget cut amounting to about $16 million, a shortfall created by low state revenues in North Dakota.

UND's history department is within the UND College of Arts and Sciences, a large academic unit which will likely have to cut about $4.2 million. Proposed reductions announced last week by the college's dean, Debbie Storrs, included cutting future funding for graduate teaching assistants or tuition waivers for graduate students in history, sociology or criminal justice. Current students in those areas will continue to receive funding.

At a Feb. 22 forum for college stakeholders, Storrs said instruction from UND President Mark Kennedy recommended academic units divest from low-enrollment courses. For undergraduate courses, the likely floor for minimal enrollment would be 12 students; for graduate courses, that floor would be eight students.

Storrs said her goal will be to have fewer low-enrolled courses, though she said some areas, such as the arts, could be unique given their focus.

"I have said I want to see fewer and fewer low-enrolled courses, in part because I have to work with my budget," she said. "I have to cover my bills, that's the challenge I have. I'm not against low-enrolled courses—I'd love to have more low-enrolled courses—but how do you support that when there's a cap on tuition, when there's a budget reduction in the state due to (agriculture prices) and oil?"

Iseminger specifically cited both the move away from low-enrolled courses, as well as the proposed end to funding for graduate students, as causes for his concern.

He saw the reduction of low-enrolled courses as tied to a subsequent reduction in high-level programming in the history department. In general, he felt university administration were prioritizing academic areas with more readily apparent potential for economic return, such as applied sciences, over those rooted in the traditional liberal arts and humanities—areas Iseminger said have historically been part of the foundation of society.

Iseminger had strong words for how he felt about the perceived transition.

"I'm disgusted, disappointed and sickened by what this administration is doing to this university," he said.

Voluntary separations

Iseminger is one of 119 total faculty and staff members who applied for either a phased retirement or an incentivized, voluntary separation. Pat Hanson, UND's director of human resources, wrote in an email that departments are in the process of considering applicants and determining whether their applications for a structured exit may be granted.

She said that process will likely not be finalized until the middle of March. After an applicant is approved, Hanson wrote, they would have 45 days to accept an agreement for a structured departure, plus an additional seven days after signing such an agreement to reconsider the move.

This most recent round of staffing buyouts and phase-downs was introduced less than a year after the last. That previous offering attracted 109 total applicants divided among 88 staff and 21 faculty members. By the time the winnowing process concluded, 52 staff members and 18 faculty ended up accepting offers for voluntary separations. Most of those employees vacated their positions by the end of June 30.

This time around, 95 staff members and 25 tenured faculty applied for either a buyout or phased retirement. In terms of eligibility, Hanson wrote a total of 216 faculty and 686 staff were eligible to apply for an incentive program. The scope of the separations won't be clear for some time yet.

"It will most likely be sometime in May, or later, before final numbers are known," wrote Hanson.

Most of the faculty and staff applicants contacted by the Herald declined to speak on record, though Iseminger said he felt confident his application would be accepted. UND philosophy professor Donald Poochigian, 73, felt the same about his own.

Poochigian said his decision was spurred in part by the indication that low-enrollment courses were set to be ruled out. He said for philosophy, also a part of the UND College of Arts and Sciences, that would include most of the upper division classes. Poochigian added that would particularly impact the university's instruction of analytic philosophy, which he described as a foundational discipline.

Poochigian said a general "drift away from humanities" was part of what he described as a university shift into a "business-technical institution."

"I had literally planned on continuing doing teaching and doing research, because I love it," he said. "Now I'm walking away."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers county, health and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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