AKRON—The University of Akron's renowned College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering is getting a boost in the university's reorganization of its academic programs—including money to possibly hire four new tenured faculty members.
While there still are some in the college who are dubious that there's enough money behind the effort to make it fully effective, Polymer College interim dean Ali Dhinojwala said he's pleased with what he sees in the reorganization so far and is optimistic it will make a meaningful difference at his school. Dhinojwala praised current University of Akron interim president John Green, whom he said was focusing the university on its core competencies and most in-demand degrees after the recent comprehensive program review.
"To use Dr. Green's phrase, we're 'doubling down' on those particular areas, and that certainly is the case when it comes to polymer science and polymer engineering," Dhinojwala said.
While the university has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks over its program reductions—it said in August it is cutting 80 of its degree or degree track programs—the Polymer College's funding actually will increase.
Wayne Hill, UA's vice president and chief communications and marketing officer, said the university overall will save about $6 million over a three- to five-year period with the program reductions, which will affect less than 5 percent of students. The university is plowing most, if not all, of that money back into its targeted programs, such as polymer science and engineering, he said.
The university will spend $2.8 million to hire 31 new faculty members—who are now being recruited—and an additional $3.5 million over three years to purchase equipment for lab startups. The latter will be for new faculty involved in research.
The Polymer College will add four new tenure-track faculty members, plus faculty will be added in related fields.
The four tenure-track hires at the college include two each in the areas of polymer engineering and polymer science. In addition, the university's programs for chemical engineering, civil engineering and corrosion engineering will each get one new tenured faculty member. The university counts them all under the umbrella of "polymer and chemical sciences," and Dhinojwala said they'll help the work of his college.
The current operating budget for the Polymer College, for its fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, is slightly more than $5.7 million, plus another $1 million allocated for labs needed by existing faculty, Hill said.
How much more money the college gets in the coming year is yet to be determined, he said, and will depend on how many new faculty members the college can hire by then and what they cost.
"The total additional investment in the College—reflecting salaries and benefits for the still-to-be-hired faculty members and necessary startup packages for labs—will be reflected in next year's budget," Hill said via email.
Faculty at the Polymer College has dropped in recent years from retirements and the loss of professors to other schools. The college had 35 full-time faculty members in 2013 and has 29 today.
Those who have left include big names in the field, such as Alamgir Karim, former associate dean of research and the university's Goodyear chair, who left for the University of Houston last September. He was followed in October by George Newkome, former head of the university's graduate school. Before them, William Landis retired from the school as a tenured professor and left an endowed chair.
Such issues have caused strife with remaining faculty. Former Polymer College dean Eric Amis talked publicly about his concerns in March, then soon announced he was stepping down as dean to become part of the regular faculty in June.
In March, Amis and Polymer College researcher Matt Becker said the college was languishing and predicted more faculty would leave—and at least one has.
David Simmons, who was an assistant professor and principal investigator at Akron's Simmons Research Group—which does "soft matter theory and simulation work"—said he recently left for another school.
"I departed the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering as a regular faculty member late this summer. I remain an unpaid Adjunct at U. Akron, which essentially enables me to continue helping along students I worked with until they complete their degrees," Simmons said via email.
He declined to discuss why he left or the state of the Polymer College, but that's not unusual. He and three other faculty members, past and present, all declined to speak on the record. All say the issue is a sensitive subject within the college, with faculty concerned and wanting issues addressed but also not wanting to publicly criticize a school they care deeply about in ways that might hurt it.
Privately, two faculty members expressed reservations that the amount of money budgeted to the college will be enough to fully right the ship. That's largely because the labs that top researchers need can be very expensive—often costing between $500,000 and $1 million—and well-funded labs mean as much or more than salaries to some dedicated researchers.
The proposed $3.5 million for such startup costs, shared with other parts of the university, may not be enough and reflect how the university's current financial constraints could mean it's operating at a hiring disadvantage, they say.
Dhinojwala is well aware of the challenges, and said he, too, thinks that startup costs are a critical part of the equation in terms of rebuilding faculty of the Polymer College.
"Infrastructure is critically important to the success of these people. You can't just bring them here," he said.
But Dhinojwala thinks he has enough startup money to make the four initial hires and hopes more funding will come in the future.
If the university as a whole can turn its fortunes around, that may be likely, given the importance of the Polymer College to industry in the region.
Companies such as A. Schulman—now part of the Netherlands' LyondellBasell—have long supported the college, and Schulman has an endowed professorship at the university.
On top of that, the University of Akron now has Schulman CEO Joe Gingo—someone who is no stranger to the importance of polymer research to the local economy—chairing its board.
When concerns for the college came to light earlier this year, Schulman and the industry trade group PolymerOhio both stood up for the school and stressed its importance to one of Ohio's major industries, not just for its raw research but for its ability to attract industry talent to the region.
"I think it's more powerful and more important than maybe it's thought of when you just talk about the technical side of it," Schulman chief operating officer Gary Miller said in March.
"It casts a net far wider than just the technical community. … It's very important to the region, and beyond, because of that."
Schulman and PolymerOhio said they want the school to rebuild its prominence.
Dhinojwala said he and others are working hard to do just that, and they are under way with the recruiting efforts for four new faculty members.
"The advertisement is out already … and we're hoping to fill these positions by the end of the year. That should bring our strength back up to about where it was four or five years ago," he said.