Wednesday, November 29, 2023

C&EN: Warren Wilson College discontinues its chemistry major

This latest sad news from Chemical and Engineering News (article by Krystal Vasquez): 

Warren Wilson College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, will eliminate its chemistry major next academic year. In addition, the college will discontinue majors in math, philosophy, history and political science, and global studies.

The cuts are the result of a “strategic planning process” spearheaded by the college’s new president, Damián Fernández. After starting in June, Fernández tasked the college with streamlining its academic portfolio to “reduce expenses in areas where we felt like that was necessary,” says Jay Roberts, the college’s provost.

Starting in fall 2024, Warren Wilson will no longer admit incoming students into the five majors. Students who are currently pursuing the majors will be offered the courses they need to graduate, Roberts says.

Eventually, however, the college intends to cut some of the more advanced courses that are offered as a part of the discontinued majors. For example, Langdon Martin, chair of Warren Wilson’s chemistry department, suspects that the school’s quantum chemistry class will be on the chopping block “since it’s been a course that hasn’t had much enrollment beyond chemists.”

It seems to me that the shrinking of smaller colleges will inevitably impact smaller colleges and their ability to support tenure lines, including chemistry.  


  1. I had the chance to visit my undergraduate institute this past month. PUI in the midwest with a location close to a major research university.

    Learned from dept head their enrollment is down nearly 25% since 2019. Number of science graduates is way down from 15-20/yr (late 90s early 2000s) to less than 5/yr (2015 to 2020s).

    This has a similar feeling to what the UK did 20 years ago with consolidation of chemistry awarding institutes. It is only a matter time as the NIH/NSF budgets are squeezed, while universities/colleges separated by 10-15 miles fight for the same money.

  2. We probably need to see more of this. I had a labmate in grad school who graduated from a tiny undergrad college with an enrollment of about 400. She was badly unprepared for grad school, and ended up mastering out after failing her prelim twice. No matter how good her professors were, almost no one can teach upper level courses outside their own area well.

    I graduated from a small college that had a critical mass of chemistry majors and professors because it attracted a lot of bio majors and pre-meds. If a small college doesn't have enough chemistry majors to justify at least one professor in each of the traditional areas (organic, inorganic, physical, analytical), they should seriously consider dropping chemistry as a major instead of limping along and having professors attempt to teach upper-level courses outside their own subdisciplines. They can still offer a chemistry minor with 1-3 faculty members, which is enough for students interested in adjacent fields like chemical or pharmaceutical sales.

    I remember a lot of students who started as chemistry majors and changed to something else, but nobody changed their major to chemistry. Getting rid of majors in English, Communications, etc would take away opportunities for students whose interests change, but taking away the option to change your major to chemistry would affect almost no one.

    1. Even back in my day (entered university in 1973) there was a lot of attrition in the undergrad Chemistry program, and I recall only one new person coming into my class after Freshman year.

      The freshman General Chemistry course for Chem major majors was in a big lecture hall and there had to be over a hundred in that class... By the time senior year came, there were less than 10 of us at graduation.

  3. Will degrees from WW be worth as much given that chunks of their curriculum are gone? They could keep enough profs to teach the classes needed for the general curriculum for distribution classes but it seems like the profs would be limited by not being in the fields. If they can't then the education that people are expecting from graduates won't be delivered, making it difficult for grads to get jobs.
    In theory this is testable - SUNY-Albany dumped a raft of liberal arts majors in the early 2000's and so if that hurt them, their grads should be less employable than before or than grads from comparable schools in the same timeframe. - Hap

  4. I have mixed feelings about this as someone who was a chem major from a liberal arts college. Part of me still believes in the ideal that an educated person should study all subjects from math and science to history and foreign languages to be a better person and a better citizen. But part of me feels like the pricetags of 4 year colleges are too high for this end goal and that maybe our education system really does need to be condensed into fewer years study and geared primarily to job training. An undergraduate chem major degree is pretty worthless in the job market.

    1. Except the point of college (why it can charge the money it does) is because it prepares you for a variety of job fields, not just one. At this point, I assume that any set of jobs that make lots of money will be engineered around so that their pay decreases (e.g. replacement of nurses and doctors with assistants, mechanization and centralization of pharmacies to decrease need for pharmacists) and so narrower job training is likely to be obsolete quickly because there either won't be jobs or they won't make sufficient money to be worth the training.
      At least part of the problem is the decrease in job training - employers don't want to train people because they can't/won't assure long-term employment and don't want to spend money on training people. As a result, everyone wants trained people but no one wants to train them. The ideal for them is to get employees to pay for their job training too - this makes sense for a long-term job but not for what companies are willing to offer.
      It doesn't help individuals to complain about it, but I think for the most part employers want trained and happy employees without doing or paying for any of the things that can make them.
      The other problem is that universities look at cash flow as their reason to exist but the goods they are supposedly producing are unpredictable (at making money - they take a long time) and not always monetary. You can't play long-term games by short-term rules and expect to win (unless you won't be around to lose or the people that lose aren't you).
      I don't know how much of my feeling is based on an internal narrative and is not a useful representation of reality. - Hap

  5. I find myself thinking along much the same lines as you do, Hap.

    I think the argument of what college is meant to do has been debated for some time (probably a couple decades now?). On the employment side, I see the mismatch between supply and demand (or put another way, training and available jobs, or even available jobs alone) become more difficult in two primary ways: (1) companies seem to be committed to doing more/the same with less - they want people who have experience in several areas to cover multiple areas of responsibility to have the smallest possible headcount, (2) the opportunities and threats of AI (this is far from sorted out, obviously).

    To my mind, not only does the first factor harm the inexperienced folks looking for their first job, but could make it difficult for those currently employed - harder to escape burnout maybe, more demanding range of required skills, and lateral moves being favored with the expectation to hit the ground running and little to no training to move up.

  6. SUNY Potsdam also downsized its chem department. Just in New York state, the number of colleges offering a BSc in chemistry is insane !

    1. A significant portion of chemistry majors go on to careers in education or into professional programs, such as physician's assistant, dentist, pharmacist or medical.

  7. I find myself thinking along much the same lines as you do, Hap.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20