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Research facility to close in late June

Eileen Duffy | Monday, April 25, 2005

After conducting research with its social science departments, the deans of the College of Arts and Letters have decided to close the Laboratory for Social Research (LSR) as a unit, beginning with its scanning service. They have set a tentative closure date for June 30.Located in Flanner Hall, the LSR provides various tools for those conducting experiments in the various fields of social science. The lab also maintains a computer cluster dedicated primarily to graduate students.One of the most important areas of the LSR is its scanning unit, which features an NCS OpScan 21. The machine is used for a variety of functions, including Teacher/Course Evaluations (TCEs), rector evaluations, commencement tickets, vehicle registration, enrollment and registration, exam scoring and survey instruments.A little more than a year ago, the lab underwent an external review, a process completed every 10 years. According to Greg Sterling, associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters, the committee responded very positively, suggesting a massive budget increase and expansion of resources for the lab.”So, last summer, we had meetings as to how to respond [to the committee’s findings],” Sterling said, “how to reallocate resources within the College [of Arts and Letters] and expand resources for [the lab].”Julie Braungart-Rieker, another associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters, along with College of Arts and Letters Dean Mark Roche, met with the chairpersons of the six social science departments (anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology, economics and econometrics and economics and policy studies) to obtain their input on the review.The deans’ overall findings, however, were different from those of the external review committee’s.After gathering information about the individual needs of each department, Sterling said, the deans decided they would be better served by smaller, more specialized locations, rather than a large, centralized unit. The goal of the College, Sterling said, is not to eliminate the major functions of the lab but to concentrate them on the needs of the particular departments.”We have to look at the best way to support all of the social science departments in the best way possible,” Sterling said. “… [It] is essential that we provide services to all departments and provide research opportunities for all faculty members.”For example, Richard Jensen, chair of the economics and econometrics department, took issue with some of the recommendations of the external review committee.”One was that the recommendations were essentially to double the size of the budget, from about a half a million [dollars] a year to a million [dollars] a year. Financially, that’s just not practical,” he said, citing today’s constantly-changing economy as a concern. “Not only that, but given that the lab had been funded at that level, it was surprising how little the review thought the lab had actually accomplished.”Essentially, Jensen emphasized, the needs of his department could be met for “a lot less than a half a million a year.”More importantly, though, the deans found a major flaw in the LSR.The College of Arts and Letters funds all the areas of the LSR, including the scanning unit. However, the scanning unit is used for a variety of University functions – it is not just limited to Arts and Letters.”[The scanning unit] was costing Arts and Letters an appreciable amount of money, when it has no place in the lab,” Sterling said. “Arts and Letters shouldn’t have to pay for that. It’s for the University as a whole.” Braungart-Rieker echoed that opinion.”The scanning unit should never have been in the LSR,” Braungart-Rieker said. “It’s a University function.”Thus, the College of Arts and Letters made the decision to close the Lab for Social Research as a centralized unit, beginning with the scanning services.Decisions like these are usually made by an academic council, and the College of Arts and Letters prepared a proposal for such a council. However, the office of the provost felt a council was not necessary, said Braungart-Rieker, since the LSR does not have students and is not a “degree-granting unit,” like an academic department.The question remains, though – where will the University turn for its scanning needs, such as the TCEs?Vice President and Associate Provost Christine Maziar said the TCEs will be outsourced.”High speed scanning is a service that is available from a number of off-campus vendors,” she said, “and we will contract with a vendor that has a strong track record of providing similar services to other institutions.” However, LRS Supervisor Debi Smith claimed that outsourcing future scanning will cost the University “two to three times more.”Some social science faculty members are extremely disappointed with the decision – and the way the decision was made.”The closing of the Laboratory for Social Research is a big mistake,” associate professor of sociology David Hachen said. “Faculty and graduate students in the social sciences use the lab extensively.”Hachen is concerned as to where faculty and students will find services to conduct research and analyze data.Furthermore, Hachen expressed confusion over the decision.”… [A] recent external review called for further expansion in order to meet the needs of social science faculty and graduate students,” he said. “Yet for reasons that are still not fully clear, the administration decided instead to close the LSR.”Lynette Spillman, associate professor of sociology, also said she was disappointed with the decision process.”I would have favored a broader process of discussion before the decision was made,” she said.Political science associate professor Michael Coppedge said he was similarly uninformed on the matter, but has a more optimistic outlook.”Although I have not heard the details of the closure, I am sure that the data sets and statistics reference library that the LSR maintained will continue to be available thorough the Hesburgh Library,” he said. “… I expect that the department will renew efforts to obtain a [computer] cluster of its own for faculty and especially graduate students to use. I am optimistic that the functions that the LSR performed that were of value to our department and others will continue to be performed smoothly in other ways.”A major concern at the LSR is the potential loss of jobs for many faculty and staff.”To say that [the notification of the closing] came as a shock is an understatement,” Betty Tucker, technical support analyst at the LRS, said. “I have been a loyal employee of Notre Dame for 19 years, and never expected [the University] to put me in this position … Although we have been assured that our performance has nothing to do with this decision, it nonetheless leaves us hanging.”Director Felicia LeClere also expressed worry about the future of the LSR’s employees.”The part I had the largest problem with is the staff who have been here 20 some years,” she said. “We have people who are 58, 59 … one woman has breast cancer; this could impact the rest of her life. The University has said they’ll help, but so far they haven’t.”Braungart-Rieker emphasized the University’s concern for the LSR’s employees.”In general, we’re trying to help the staff in the ways that we can,” she said. “If there are opportunities to provide severance, we will. This is the hardest part of the decision-making process. You can decide something on paper, but the staff there … those are people, real people … Nobody likes to do this kind of stuff.”