AKRON—Soon, the University of Akron no longer will have a College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. It will become a school within a new college of engineering instead, according to the university's reorganization plans.
The university's board of trustees on May 29 passed a plan that will consolidate its 11 colleges and schools into five to address what UA president Gary Miller said was a "$65 million to $70 million challenge" as the university faces both the COVID-19 crisis and enrollment that has been decreasing for years.
Depending on who you ask, the move at the polymer college will either mark the end of the university's vaunted international reputation in the field—a reputation that already had been diminished—or it will be little more than a change in name that cuts administrative costs while leaving the school's polymer expertise intact.
Amy Randall is one who fears the worst. She's the executive director of research and development for Firestone Building Products in Nashville, Tenn. She's also a member of the polymer college's advisory board. She earned her doctorate in polymer science and engineering at UA in 2006.
"Akron will not compete with polymers as a subset of their engineering program," Randall said. "Those (prospective students) will go get an engineering degree where there's a top-notch engineering program, and I would do the same thing. I would not go there to get a degree within the college of engineering because that's not a nationally known institution."
Randall said she supports the polymer college and made her comments because she'd like to see it retain its prominence. She said UA already has seen its reputation in polymers diminished in recent years. That has come as UA as a whole has shrunk, but particularly, she said, because the polymer college has lost some high-profile faculty and researchers.
For example, Matthew Becker, a well-known researcher who applies polymer engineering to medical devices, left UA in 2019 and took his lab and 13 researchers to Duke University, but only after he'd been vocal for more than a year about UA not supporting the polymer departments and losing other researchers.
Randall said she keeps in touch with colleagues at the college, including as sources for finding hires among its graduates, but she said that's becoming harder to do as the school shrinks and people leave.
"What they have been fully destroying when they lose key faculty is they lose that connectivity with me—the alumni," Randall said.
It also may be Randall's last chance to speak up. She doesn't think she'll have significant input much longer, because once the polymer college is done away with, she doesn't foresee it having a separate advisory council. That's part of a loss of autonomy she expects will be damaging if the college becomes a school.
"I consider myself to be a realist, definitely not a pessimist. But I do not see how they're going to be given the opportunity to act autonomously enough to be as successful as they need to be," Randall said.
Not everyone sees it that way, though.
"I disagree with her. It's a name change, in my opinion," said one longtime polymer science professor, who asked not to be named to stay out of university politics.
"The university needs to save money, and what they did was figure out how to get rid of some administrators. … But, reputation-wise, I don't think this affects things too much," he said, noting that UA built its reputation in polymer science before the college was formed in 1988.
University leaders said their intent never has been to diminish the role of polymers at UA, but that the university's current challenging financial situation leaves them no choice but to make changes. They said they'll continue to support polymers, but that a budget for the new school has yet to be determined. For the most recent fiscal year ended June 30, 2019, the polymer college had a budget of $6.7 million, which included $1 million for research labs.
"Of course, (the polymer departments) have some significant stature in the scientific and research community. They certainly have a national and international reputation," said John Wiencek, who was named provost and executive vice president at UA in April as part of efforts to increase enrollment and boost the university's research work.
A chemical and biochemical engineer with a doctorate, Wiencek is no stranger to the value of engineering and research.
He said the reorganization plan, largely complete when he came aboard, has buy-in from faculty across the university, including among its engineering disciplines.
The cuts aren't easy to make, he said, but they also may have benefits. One is that as part of the new college of engineering, polymer researchers will work more closely with colleagues from other disciplines, rather than being in a silo.
"That's exactly part of the intention," Wiencek said.
The current interim dean of the polymer college, Ali Dhinojwala, agreed, saying he thinks that undergraduates will gain access to the polymer faculty, which now works almost exclusively with masters and doctoral students.
"The positive things of being part of a bigger engineering program are that we can leverage some of our research capabilities across more disciplines more effectively. We can participate in undergraduate programs … so there will be more opportunities for merging expertise in polymers with other disciplines," Dhinojwala said.
Wiencek said he's also not ignoring the financial benefit of UA's reputation in polymer science, which includes attracting international students.
"They are paying the full freight, and that's a good revenue source. That's something that often gets overlooked in terms of what polymer science and polymer engineering is doing" for the university, Wiencek said.
At least some of the polymer college's backers accept that the school is feeling the impact of tough choices the university has to make.
Akron-based Goodyear, a longtime supporter of the university and a company that recruits from the college, is watching the situation and supports the plans.
"The University of Akron's engineering and polymer science programs are important to Goodyear's ability to recruit outstanding local talent, and we are proud, longtime supporters of these and many other university programs," Laura Duda, Goodyear chief communications officer, said in an email.
"These are unprecedented times, and we support UA leadership as they make the difficult choices needed to ensure the university's continued success. We are confident that polymer science will continue to be a priority," she added.
Randall, however, remains concerned. The polymer college already has lost some critical mass and seen its reputation diminished, she said.
"I don't feel hopeful they're even going to keep their current reputation, let alone rebuild it," she said of the reorganization plans.