When the geography department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was among two academic programs administrators offered to cut as part of a statewide budget squeeze in early 2018, the proposal took department members by surprise.
Plenty of numbers about credit hours and cost were thrown around at the time, as university leaders tried to demonstrate to state lawmakers the impact of the potential cuts on the state’s largest institution of higher learning.
Some seemed specious, especially to longtime faculty and staff within the department, said Becky Buller, an assistant professor of practice and the undergraduate chair in the department.
“We were growing at the time, and that’s something the people who made the decision of potentially putting us on the chopping block weren’t aware of,” Buller said.
UNL Geography was undergoing a search for a new program director and rethinking how it delivered geography education in the 21st century, she added. News of the potential cuts threatened the progress that had already been made.
Ultimately, the Legislature restored enough funding to the university system following a campaign by students, alumni and faculty to describe what signal a university without a dedicated geography program would send to the state, region and country.
The stay of execution, so to speak, allowed UNL Geography to continue its transformation and even accelerated the changes, Buller said.
“I told students we were undergoing a metamorphic process,” she said. “We underwent even more heat, even more pressure than normal and came out stronger afterwards.”
In the 18 months since, UNL Geography has hired a new chair and two new faculty. A change in how UNL funds programs, allowing tuition dollars to follow students to the classes they teach, also stands to benefit UNL Geography and the large number of students who enroll in general education courses there each year.
And the department is finalizing a merger with anthropology and global studies into the School of Global Intergrative Studies that could go before the NU Board of Regents for approval in the near future.
Sophia Perdikaris, who was hired as the chair of the Department of Anthropology in January 2018, has helped shepherd the proposed new school from an idea to a proposal that has landed on the desk of interim NU President Susan Fritz.
“The beautiful thing about having those three departments together is we strengthen each other,” said Perdikaris, who previously worked as an archaeologist at The City University of New York for 19 years.
The merger would create a new home for a large number of students from a wide array of majors, she added.
“I love problem cases. Give me a problem and let’s find a solution,” she said. “Right now, it’s not even a problem. We created structure, momentum and have some goals and ideas we want to drive forward.”
Part of that momentum comes from hiring two tenure-track faculty for the first time in nearly 15 years.
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Even as UNL Geography’s future was uncertain, interest in joining the oldest geography department west of the Mississippi River was high, with 90 people applying for the two open positions.
One of the two hires, Patrick Bitterman, said he heard rumblings of the university potentially shuttering the department, but during his interview process, got the sense UNL Geography was full of energy and ready to grow.
Now a first-year assistant professor, Bitterman is teaching geographic information systems, or GIS, to 10 students, half of who are geography majors, and he said he’ll focus on the interplay between humans and other areas of UNL expertise: water, drought, agriculture and natural resources.
“The discipline is all about understanding connections,” he said, connecting the dots between how humans have impacted a place over time, as well as how a certain place has forced humans to adapt.
Along with GIS, complicated computer systems used by government agencies and businesses to understand the human-environment interactions and for planning purposes, Perdikaris said the new School of Integrated Global Studies also hopes to revive UNL’s museum studies program.
Instead of “writing on a card,” Perdikaris said the 21st century version of the program will involve how geographers can develop exhibits using augmented and virtual reality.
“It won’t be the way it used to be,” she said, adding the school is exploring how it can deliver those programs and more to a broader section of Nebraskans through online education.
In addition to the future, UNL Geography also wants to help Nebraska better understand its present and its past.
Part of Buller’s work as a cultural and historical geographer is to study human trafficking. Perdikaris has researched the lingering changes to the island of Barbuda after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Jim Benes, a graduate of UNL and Montana State University, was one of two Ph.D. students accepted into the program shortly before the cuts were announced last year, an announcement he said left him “shell-shocked.”
For Benes, going back to school had been a decision he had mulled for a time while working as a global exchange coordinator in UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences.
But he had a research idea he wanted to pursue: A fire history of the Great Plains.
“In the West where I was trained as a paleoecologist, I used lake sediment cores to reconstruct fire history to go back to the last glacial period,” Benes said, “but there are fewer records that exist for the northern Great Plains. Our fire-history knowledge is based on a few records.”
As changes to Nebraska’s climate make extreme droughts and wildfires more likely, Benes said he hopes his training within UNL Geography can help broaden understanding of those phenomena.
“I’m looking forward to the program becoming more robust with more minds with more viewpoints that can ask better questions in critiquing my work,” he said.
In its life after being pardoned, UNL Geography wants to continue examining how the environment affects humans and vice versa, Perdikaris said, a topic she added is becoming more applicable every day.
“We want to move forward understanding people, where and how we live and the challenges that creates, how we can work with each other, understand how our diversity and the environment changes us,” she said.