A public university is preparing to throw a massive natural history collection away to make more room for the track team

March 31, 2017 • 12:25 pm

by Greg Mayer

In a Washington Post piece by Sarah Kaplan, I learned of the following disaster– read this tweet, by John Overholt of Harvard University, and weep.


And this gem of administrative reasoning is from the Post article:

ULM Vice President for Academic Affairs Eric Pani told a local paper, the News Star, that the university can no longer afford to keep the collection…  now that running facilities are being updated to meet national track and field standards, there’s nowhere else for the specimens to go, he said.

“Unfortunately, the fiscal situation facing the university over the years requires us to make choices like this,” Pani said.

As Jerry and I have argued before, in our defense of science at the Field Museum in Chicago, natural history museums are key parts of the scientific enterprise, and their collections are irreplaceable documents of, among other things, biodiversity across space and time, and an essential resource for the conservation of biodiversity. In the present case, it’s not that the role of science in the museum is to be diminished, as was the case at the Field Museum; rather, it is to destroy the collection altogether! The public exhibit part of the Museum of Natural Museum, is to be maintained, and I’m not sure if they will be firing the curators, but the collections are to go, and that’s the only part of a museum that is literally irreplaceable– not that scientific curatorship and education aren’t vital, but both can be reconstituted as long as the collection is ‘mothballed’.

It might be argued that since it’s ‘just’ a regionally focused collection, it’s not that important, but state and local museums are often repositories for the most comprehensive and useful collections, especially for conservation efforts (which in the U.S. often have a state focus). And there are millions of specimens in the collection!

The action of the ULM administration is a striking illustration of the deep currents of anti-intellectual philistinism coursing through American higher education, especially among university administrators, who increasingly are divorced from teaching and scholarship– a managerial class obtaining their degrees in ‘leadership’, and forced upon universities by boards and legislators who think higher education should be run more like a ‘business’. (I am wont to point out, when confronted by such arguments for business-like governance by people who usually have a high regard for the military, that the captain of an aircraft carrier is always a pilot who has come up through an air wing, and not someone trained only in management.)

A hashtag, #ULMcollections, has been created to further discussion and dissemination of knowledge about this unconscionable plan. I urge readers, especially those in Louisiana, to contact officials, their representatives, and the university, although you might want to be a bit more temperate than I’ve been here.

h/t N. Taft

62 thoughts on “A public university is preparing to throw a massive natural history collection away to make more room for the track team

  1. The very skewed priorities in the USA are personified by putting sports ahead of science -discarding knowledge for games. Hope minds will be changed and the collection preserved.

    1. The TV series Sliders did an episode involving an alternate Earth where intellect was prized over sport. Its title was Eggheads, and it involved a competition (something like a version of Jeopardy) that was that world’s equivalent of football.

  2. Sometimes I think the US is in steep decline. Cut the Endowment for the arts because the working class only like bowling and football. As time goes on we live in a world more dependent by scientific knowledge and scientific thinking than ever. It’s not the time to give up on the enterprise that saves us from the dark ages.

  3. It is hard to grasp just how obscene this action seems to be but maybe not as surprising today. As well stated in the posting, the symptoms causing such action are even worse than the action itself. Even though the stated reason for removal of the collections has no justification,the willingness to simply pitch them goes more to the heart of the problem.

    Anyone thinking of attending such a university should think more than twice.

  4. “… rather, it is to destroy the collection altogether! ”

    I wonder if this is marketing to get bidders to shell it out big time to “rescue” the items. After all, they need money.

    ULM – noted.

    1. I’m sure the scientists are desperate and that yes, one of the motivations for making this public is to encourage donations for rescue. I don’t think there’s anything unseemly or deceptive about that.

      It would be deceptive and smarmy if they knew the collection was going to be saved and a grassroots effort wasn’t needed – but were doing it anyway. Do you really think that’s the case here?

    2. It is unlikely that anyone would buy the collection. I am hopeful that other natural history collections will offer to take the specimens. This will involve considerable expense to those other museums for transportation, but I hope no money would go to ULM.


  5. Surely there’d be no shortage of other museums happy to take on a collection that’s otherwise going to be destroyed?

    1. The problem is space and added curative cost on those facilities. Museum collections are maintained on a super-tight budget.

      1. Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, should universities be obligated to pay for the housing and maintenance of donated collections in perpetuity? What’s the likelihood that those six million fish are ever going to be studied by anyone?

        I agree that trashing them to make room for a sports facility seems egregious, but presumably there are cases when it makes budgetary sense to triage collections based on their actual scientific or educational utility.

        1. I understand and appreciate the argument. Further, the value of natural history collections as a teaching and research tool has taken a back seat in the life sciences as cellular and molecular biology has virtually taken over. But though their status and value has declined, they are not valueless. Further, we cannot predict that their value will increase in the future as new discoveries and new priorities emerge.
          What is really irksome here is to lose this prize and part of our scientific heritage so that college students have a better track to run on. Its not like we are losing it to make way for a teaching hospital or something.

            1. Bingo!

              From: http://www.ulm.edu/herbarium/ (bolding by me, for emphasis)

              “The Herbarium of the University of Louisiana at Monroe (Herbarium NLU) is housed within the ULM Museum of Natural History (Division of Botany) under the direction of the Department of Biology. The collection consists of plant specimens that have been pressed and dried for long term preservation. By comparing individuals collected through history, from different habitats, and throughout a species’ geographical range, a wealth of information can be obtained for ecological and evolutionary research. Herbarium specimens can now also be valuable for genome research, studying variation at the DNA level, and exploring gene expression. The ULM Herbarium has a history of active exchange programs with herbaria around the world to contribute to greater botanical knowledge as much as possible.”

              Pity Eric Pani doesn’t seem to have looked at his own institutions information pages, just to see what this thing he apparently doesn’t know anything about actually does.

              And, while it is a cost, it also brings in grants, publicity, and (presumably) prestige for the university: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=0847856&HistoricalAwards=false

  6. We learn that this is to be done because “running facilities are being updated to meet national track and field standards”. What does that mean? Were they in violation of something, or just getting noncompetitive to recruit track and field talent? I bet the latter.

    The whole thing about SportsBall being sacrosanct at universities is another thing. Don’t get me started.

  7. I’ve long been both shocked and disgusted at the role sport plays in universities in the US. However, I didn’t think even they were such Philistines. This is completely outrageous and such a travesty. In any other wealthy country this wouldn’t happen. (Well, not for a reason like this anyway.)

    I hope a solution can be found.

    1. Also, it’s not like track and field itself is a money maker in the university. Mostly I think it is just a sideline of the Football program. It is low priority but then that just tells you where science falls in the big picture at the school.

      1. I thought universities were supposed to be places of learning and education. Just what do these steroid-addled goons – errm, sportsmen – learn?



        1. University administrators long ago sold out to the sports-money. Usually they aren’t so blatantly hostile to their intellectual responsibilities.

      2. At the university where I taught, track and field (the ‘track’ part in particular) were important enrollment magnets, especially for females (as was football for males). It was much more a question of getting students than making money. It COST money, but helped keep enrollments up.

        Thus the logic of the Louisiana university and its doomed natural history collection: why continue to support a musty old museum that ‘nobody’ cares about when they can use its part of the academic budget to ‘update’ their track facilities for all the beautiful young bodies that want to come to ULM to run and jump, throw and go?

        As for academic standards, well, let it suffice to note that the new major of choice for many college athletes (replacing something called ‘general studies,’ which is still available for the otherwise incorrigible) is ‘exercise science.’

        1. ‘exercise science’.

          Oh dear, another oxymoron. What will these ‘scientists’ be scientifically investigating, one wonders. Or is ‘science’ just the default name these days for anything that manifestly isn’t art or literature?

          (Sorry if my sarcasm settings are jammed on 11)


    2. Well Heather, I could snark about the position occupied by sport – particularly rugby – in this country. But at least it’s a totally separate franchise (it comes under showbiz, I think).


      1. I think professional sport here is pretty minor compared to bigger countries. Certainly the paydays are smaller for most players. My beef is how sport, especially football, dominates over education in a learning institution. Sport is important, but it shouldn’t be THE most important thing at a university. Imagine if Massey wanted to pull down part of the Vet school to add a rugby field? It wouldn’t even be considered.

        1. Just an example but this is sports in college in America. The coach of the football team at the U. of Nebraska was making 4 million a year and that is on a multi year contract. The team was not even in the top 20 for much of the time so they got rid of him and are probably paying the new coach even more. So this job is by far the highest paid employee in the state. All of the coaches have assistance and free cars to drive. I am only giving one example here there are many more and in many other schools.

          1. Unbelievable! Just think of all the research in science, history, geography, anthropology, medicine etc that could be done with that money. All the educators that could be paid. I could go on ad infinitum.

          2. “The coach of the football team at the U. of Nebraska was making 4 million a year . . . .”

            Ten times the annual pay of the U.S. president.

            What is a university football coach’s responsibility and burdens compared to those of high public office?

  8. So this is what members of an administration decided. I know of many university administrators, having chatted with them, listened to their speeches, and I have read their numerous e-mails from my workplace. It is likely that [i]every day[/i] the admins that made this decision are giving talks and sending messages about the very special role their university plays in the advance of science and the humanities, and the sacred duty of educating of young minds. They probably say such words [i]every goddamn day[/i].

    Well, from now on I hope that when they do that they choke on it. A little.

  9. I would like to see this poll question asked of American boys, ages 13 to 18: What would you rather be, the world’s greatest athlete or the world’s greatest scientist? We all know what the answer would be, by a large margin. In the United States, and perhaps other countries as well, sports is a national obsession. This is why cities are willing to spend hundreds of millions dollars on sports stadiums for professional teams, even though they are money losers with most of the revenue going to team owners. I have a theory that sports, particularly of the spectator variety, serve the same function as does religion for many people: it validates their lives that otherwise would seem meaningless and vapid.

    Colleges and universities need to cater to their clientele. Thus, they will spend a million dollars a year on the salary of a coach and millions more on facilities while the faculty is staffed by starving adjuncts. Can it still be said that education is the first priority of “higher education?” I doubt it — at least at institutions with major sports teams. The long term implications of this disturbing trend is ominous as the denigration of the intellectual life continues apace.

    1. And don’t forget, money corrupts everything. Not only has sports far exceeding the american interest in education, we don’t even care about the health of those who play the games. In schools they are just hired help. Very disposable.

      1. ” . . . they are just hired help. Very disposable.”

        Yep, hence the pervasive use and acceptance of the terms “human resources” and “human capital,” flesh-and-blood widgets to be exploited.

    2. If I had been asked that question when I was between the ages of 13 to 18, I would have said “world’s greatest scientist”, but, then, I was always a bit odd in that respect.

    1. In most browsers, if you hover over the link a web address will show in a status bar, the last bit of which the email address of the academic vice president of the university. Also, click on the #ULMcollections hashtag above to see who and what groups are discussing this on twitter, with further links in the feed.


  10. This is a !st of April Fools, ne?
    I bought into it for a few seconds, but when reading the absolutely ridiculous time table (not months or days, but hours) I realised I was taken for a ride.
    Quite a good one!

  11. “ULM to donate two collections from Museum of Natural History” /Possibly latest development:
    http://www. thenewsstar.com/story/news/education/2017/03/28/ulm-donate-two-collections-museum-natural-history/99752798/

        1. You left a space in the link after the www. (maybe intentionally?)

          Generally, it’s safe to post any link except a Youtube one. If it’s a link to an image, the image may imbed but I think that’s permissible. It’s just videos that bother Jerry (‘cos of bandwidth).

          (Videos, you leave off the ‘http://’ and WordPress automagically restores it but without imbedding the video)


          1. Yes, the spaces were intentional. Technology and me often do not get along, and I fear the claws of PCCe! So thanks for the simple posting advice.

  12. By definition, sports is an adjunct secondary activity for a university, not its main purpose. It is only because of the $$ involved with sports that they are thinking otherwise.

    If a public library ditched a valuable collection to improve its cafeteria…well, you get the idea.


    Something similar to this was said to have almost happened to the Cleveland Public Library in the mid-70s when its Philistine curator wanted to get rid of an invaluable photography collection.

  13. Well said and so very true. Sadly this is no longer just a peculiarity of “American high education” It’s been exported.

  14. I do not understand the huge investments of emotion and money into – so to say – who will win the Quidditch cup. To me, university sport is to help students be healthy and happy. It should include every student in a satisfactory way, rather than select and develop the talented few.

  15. OMG!! Universities are for the preservation and disseminate of knowledge NOT sportsball games!!

    1. Exactly and right now they are just getting down to the final four in March Madness. For those in other countries who do not know, this is basketball in big time American College. Just behind the football coach in pay will be the basketball coaches and their staff. The schools who win at the big contest take back millions in the biggest pile of money that is just there for the taking.

  16. Collection specimens are the basis of research because whenever you present data – morphology, anatomy, cytology, chemistry, DNA – you need to refer to the specimen (“voucher”) you got them from, and that specimen needs to be deposited at an accessible, curated collection, so that your research is reproducible. At least in my area journals will not publish a paper unless each data point is vouchered.

    Collection specimens are the basis of research because more and more of them are databased, resulting in large databases such as GBIF, which are then used by species distribution modellers, biogeographers, conservation scientists etc. to do spatial studies that would have been unthinkable even just 20 years ago. And who knows what people will come up with in another 20 years?

    Collections are, of course, our only access to specimens from the past, and our only access to specimens of species that have since gone extinct. Just yesterday I handled two specimens of a plant that was last collected in the 19th century and is presumed extinct; but with modern techniques you could still study its genome.

    Collection specimens represent a massive investment. One thing I have seen done is a collection being valued based on how much it would cost to replace it, in the sense of collecting all those millions of specimens again (fuel, work hours, car rental, equipment, etc.). People should look at that number and realise that this is the value that they are responsible for. And make no mistake, the number that comes out is always in “holy s***” territory, even for a small museum…

    1. By the way, is this ever done to collections in the humanities? Has any institution ever thrown their art collection or archaeological museum onto landfill?

      People often feel that STEM has money while humanities are cut, but at least as far as collections are concerned I feel that the humanities have the edge.

      1. Probably not. But when I started working at Chicago State University, the new librarian discovered – to her horror- boxes of rare and priceless art books that were slated to be tossed out with the trash. She rescued them, and I got to look at them, as I was in the Publications department. So never underestimate stupidity, either.

        1. Ah yes, libraries, I forgot about those. Quite true, they may be sacrificed on the altar of short-sightedness even before biodiversity collections.

  17. ‘Tight budgets’ in Harvard’s case is mythology.

    With an endowment of $38 billion, I’m rather skeptical that funding shortages are the issue. I think it relates to a fundamental and ubiquitous problem with American society today: free market principles are used in every corner. So many aspects of life are reduced to monetary value and transactions. Students are now customers, professors have become service providers.

  18. Can somebody please explain how valuable this collection is in scientific terms. I deplore the reason why they want to chuck it out, but let’s say that they were doing it to make way for better lab or teaching facilities. How would you justify retaining the collection? Has any new science been done with this collection recently? Has it been used to teach students or inspire future students?

    1. I don’t know anything about this particular collection, but museum collections in general get a lot of use by researchers.

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