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