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History department responds to challenge of retirements

No department on campus has escaped the recent spate of early retirements, yet one of the hardest hit has been history. But although department head Altina Waller says it was a scramble to figure out what to do to compensate for the retirements, she says the department is offering all but one of its planned courses this semester.

The department, which regularly receives high marks in the National Research Council rankings, lost eight faculty this year, in addition to several who have left in the past couple of years and have not been replaced. There are now 22 full-time faculty, including four new hires, down from 32 in the early 1990s.

In order to cover the scheduled courses, she has hired six adjunct faculty, mostly to teach the survey courses such as Western Civilization and American history. Waller says the department is fortunate that retirees A. William Hoglund, Allen Ward, Kent Newmyer and Edmund Wehrle are returning to teach upper level courses this semester and next. "This will cushion the impact," she says.

Waller is cautiously optimistic about the spring semester, too. With more time to recruit adjuncts and persuade retiring faculty to return, she expects to be able to staff the courses already planned.

Still, she says, the retirees were excellent teachers and popular advisors who will be missed and cannot really be replaced. "In addition to teaching and advising, they were essential to the collegiality and efficient functioning of the department," she says. "Allen Ward, for example, as director of the undergraduate program, was always a source of wisdom in program planning and advising individual students. Anita Walker was both Honors Advisor and Chair of the Courses and Curriculum Committee as well as a popular teacher."

The faculty who remain will have increased numbers of students in their classes as well as advisees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. At the graduate level, however, several retired faculty have offered to continue working with those graduate students who have completed their coursework and are writing their dissertations.

Yet it is the graduate courses that are hardest to cover and Waller admits that there is a smaller selection of graduate seminars this year. "Upper level and graduate courses really change with the specific interests and expertise of faculty members," she says.

Waller says the retirements could also make a difference in the pool of applicants for graduate study at UConn, especially because many graduate students apply to study with a particular faculty member. "The retirees are people who've built up a reputation over a very long time, such as Tom Paterson and Kent Newmyer (renowned experts in U.S.-foreign relations and American legal history, respectively)," she says.

Waller says the opportunity to hire at least some new faculty at the associate or full professor level will help. Cornelia Hughes Dayton, a new associate professor who has published a well received book on women in the legal system in the 18th century, "will certainly attract graduate students," she says.

Waller hopes in the next few years to hire enough highly qualified new faculty members to maintain and even elevate the department's national standing. She credits Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Ross MacKinnon with a commitment to restore and improve the department. This year she expects to launch searches for four more new faculty.

And it is this opportunity that offers a chance to reshape the department. "Despite the tremendous loss of the expertise of retired faculty, the upside is the chance to reinvent ourselves and do it very deliberately," she says.

Last spring the department conducted a major review of its programs, identifying fields where it is already strong and wants to continue, as well as new fields to strengthen. Areas of focus will include Early American History, Modern Europe, Latin American and Caribbean History, and 20th century U.S. History. The department is also now preparing for an external evaluation that will help in setting new directions for both its undergraduate and graduate programs.

Already Waller and the history faculty are shaping plans for courses the department will offer next fall. "We have four new people, who have new ideas about the types of courses they want to offer," she says. "We will see more courses that bring diversity in both content and methodology to the curriculum. We have the opportunity to integrate the expertise of our new colleagues with that of the continuing faculty and plan a more focused program."

"The retirement of so many valued colleagues is a great loss to the department," says Waller. "Our challenge is to build on their legacy of excellence with the opportunities now available."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu