The University of Louisiana at Monroe clearly defined its priorities this week when it ordered the curators of its natural history collection to find a new home for their 6.5 million specimens or destroy the collection.
The space where the collection is being stored is needed for further development of the track and field program. It had been removed from its original storage location and placed beneath the university’s track and field facilities while it waited for a new home to be constructed in the expansion of the campus’ Hanna Hall.
Unfortunately, that expansion has been postponed and the university has decided that expansion of the track and field facilities will take priority. With no additional space available for storage, the officials have ordered the collection destroyed by July unless another suitable home for the specimens can be found.
In response, the following ‘distress call’ appeared on the organization’s Facebook page. It has since been removed, but was preserved by Gizmodo prior to deletion:
It is my sad duty to report to you that the ULM administration has decided to divest the research collections in the Museum of Natural History. This includes the 6 million fish specimens in the Neil Douglas fish collection and the nearly 500,000 plant specimens in the R. Dale Thomas plant collection. They find no value in the collections and no value of the collections to the university. The College was given 48 hours to suggest an alternate location for the collections on campus so that Brown Stadium can be renovated for the track team. With only about 20 hours left, we have found no magic solution yet. To add insult to injury on what was a very hard day, we were told that if the collections are not donated to other institutions, the collections will be destroyed at the end of July.
While we weep that our own institution would turn its back on 50+ years of hard work and dedication, we will not abandon the collections to the dumpsters. They did not have the courage to inform us face-to-face, but we have the courage to persevere through these dark times.
Oh, in other sad news, we were informed that there will not be any expansion of the public displays in Hanna Hall.
It’s very tempting to immediately focus on the potential loss of this extensive intellectual resource and chastise the university administration for its decision to prioritize athletics over education, but the circumstances that led to this decision are equally if not more troubling.
The State of Louisiana cut appropriations to the university by more than 50% according to Dr. Eric Pani, Vice President for Academic Affairs (the man responsible for the decision to destroy the collection in favor of an improved track and field facility). This means that in order to keep the lights on, the university needs to develop new revenue streams immediately and, judging by this decision, it seems like it’s banking on track and field being a much-needed source of income.
In other words, this distressing situation is just a symptom of a larger nation-wide decline in educational infrastructure. With public support evaporating, tuition rates are getting unreasonably high at many institutions, the quality of the education paid for by that tuition is declining, and students are beginning to look outside of the United States for arguably better and more-affordable higher education.
As long as education is no longer considered a priority for public support, institutions like ULM will continue to be forced to turn to alternative sources of revenue at the expense of valuable programs with actual intellectual capital. The character of campuses will continue to shift away from ‘places of higher learning’ to ‘places you go to watch track and field events.’
On the bright side, institutions like the Smithsonian are aware of the situation and the Washington Post is reporting that other institutions are approaching the university to offer help in securing a new home for this priceless collection.
What makes it so valuable? Natural history collections and natural history research provide the foundation of our understanding of life on this planet. Collections like these are enormously important and extend to disciplines well beyond those traditionally associated with things like fossils and organisms preserved in jars.
As Larry Page, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, stated in an email to the Washington Post,
“In a period of rapid changes in the environment and climate, specimens in natural history collections serve as the benchmark for gauging the impact…The loss of such large and valuable collections as those at the University of Louisiana at Monroe would be a tremendous tragedy to science.”