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Dr. Dirt
May 2018

Thompson School Drawn and Quartered

perhaps it's less painful than the death-by-a-thousand cuts as practiced over the last two decades

A tiny four-sentence-long Associated Press article on March 11 hit me like a ton of waterstruck bricks.

The powers that be at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) decided that the Thompson School of Applied Science (TSAS) will be reduced to three programs of study from the current seven. Beginning in 2019 the School will support forest technology, animal science focused on livestock, and large-animal veterinary technology. Horticultural technology will be eliminated, along with civil technology, culinary arts and nutrition, integrated agriculture management, and much of applied animal science. After an hour on the UNH website, I finally tracked down a fuller (though brief) report:

I saw this article a week ago now (about two months ago, when you read this), but could find no further information about these decisions from the UNH news office or in local papers. It all seemed rather clandestine. By now (May), UNH will have released some press, and The People (you) will have likely made some responses. In advance, I appreciate the support for TSAS and anyone’s public opposition to the shut-down, but in truth it’s hard for me to conceive of any other outcome at this point.

UNH administration has spent much of the last hundred years trying to figure out where the two-year Thompson School fits into the university mission, or more accurately, how TSAS does not fit into the UNH mission. It is an unusual mating, and I think the only other universities across the country that have a similar arrangement are U-Conn (Ratcliffe-Hicks) and U-Mass (Stockbridge). So, the two-year school on the four-year campus has been a conundrum to many at the four-year schools for decades. With some frequency over the last thirty years, TSAS has been put through the wringer of justifying its existence with intensive school-wide evaluations, analyses, reports, and white papers. A friend called these exercises “life justification ceremonies,” though there was not much in the way of ceremony, just a lot of extra work toward no good end. By the way, all of these several reports by outside evaluators  concluded that the Thompson School was doing great work and could be improved by getting more support (moral and financial) from COLSA and UNH.

In my opinion, there has also been a conscious effort by administration to whittle away at the school until it was no longer viable. Faculty buy-outs, tenure-track positions not replaced, elimination of the school admissions rep, firing of the TSAS Director, shrinking materials and equipment budgets, etc. Ten years ago the most heavily subscribed program was Applied Business Management (ABM), a hands-on education in operating a small business, for which a number of business-oriented Hort Tech grads added a third year. In a seemingly bizarre move, ABM was eliminated, which instantly reduced school enrollment by about a third. That didn’t do much to improve the bottom line. And while an imbalance of income/expense has frequently been cited as the reason for axe sharpening, I’ve never seen any real numbers of budgetary drag . Meanwhile TSAS faculty produced more than one fiscal analysis showing that TSAS was a “cash cow” for COLSA, bringing in more tuition dollars than it cost to run the place.

Such injustices through the years are numerous. Until about ten years ago, TSAS courses transferred into the parent school UNH at 60%. A course at TSAS – a part of COLSA and UNH – was worth only 60% of a UNH course. A student transferring 50 credits from TSAS into UNH was given 30 credits at UNH. This is on a numerical par with the clause in the US Constitution which mandates that slaves count as 3/5 of a person. I’m not equating the TSAS situation with the appalling condition and treatment of blacks through the years, but suggesting that there has been a parallel discounting of TSAS educators, students, and educational worth which amounted to an ingrained prejudice. TSAS grads looking for a four-year degree frequently chose out-of-state universities, where they could get full credit for their two-year courses. Transfers included Virginia Tech, Colorado State, U-Mass, U-Maine, URI, Boston Architectural College, Cornell University and others. It took decades of active and persistent lobbying to finally achieve 100% parity for most TSAS courses.

It does seem the height of irony that horticultural technology is being eliminated so that the new TSAS offerings will all be “agriculture-based programs.” Horticulture has been fundamental to the agricultural mission of TSAS and UNH since their founding.

I could continue whining about all the injustices through the decades, but I’ll stop. Part of the reality in 2018, as I’ve written here before, is that there are fewer high-school grads each year, and considerably fewer of that shrinking pool want to choose a career of hard labor at $15 per hour, along with a college loan debt in the tens of thousands of dollars from one of the most expensive public universities in America. Hort Tech enrollment numbers have fallen through the decades. Hence, the panel discussion at the NHLA Spring Conference on the move to a foreign workforce which works hard and thinks the pay is great.

The loss of all these TSAS programs is a huge sadness. It will clearly be a loss to a very large state horticulture industry. There will be no feeder school for the future workers and owners in the booming Green Industry. But the university system is protecting its bottom line, which has become its most valued and important product in recent decades. The big money is not in teaching but in research and large federal grants. University enrollment shortfalls are corrected now by lowering standards, accepting 80% instead of 20% of applicants, and hiring international head-hunter corporations to recruit wealthy foreign (especially Asian) students. Again, not a big source for students electing horticulture.

I should hasten to add that this is not only at UNH but true at all American universities, including the Ivy Leagues. Universities are doing what they need to do to survive. Many are not surviving. And frankly, horticulture is currently near the bottom of every list:  No students, no research, no foreign students, no fat federal grants. I don’t foresee this changing, and it’s a tragedy for the Thompson School and for the Green Industry.  Beyond that, it’s pretty bad news for everyone, since horticulture is critical for our enjoyment of the environment and ultimately to our survival.

I really want to conclude with something hopeful here, but I’m not seeing it. Cooperative Extension, threadbare though they are these days, can certainly help. They’ve been increasing their outreach efforts in horticulture and landscape for a couple of decades, and apparently they will be taking over a piece of the TSAS campus. And industry has been stepping up their educational programs, though they do tend to have a “buy-my-product” focus.

As a past faculty member, I’ve sincerely appreciated the recent upwelling of support for Hort Tech on various social platforms on the internet. There have been some seriously moving comments on the strengths of the program, the lifelong friendships (and a number of marriages) formed while at TSAS, and the value of the Thompson School in people’s lives. I encourage letters of protest and heartfelt testimonials from grads (“my babies”), but COLSA, UNH, and the Board of Trustees have made their decision and moved on. It’s been in the works for years. Good ol’ Hort Tech as a two-year applied program is toast. RIP. It is a great sadness, and a mistake.

— Dr. Dirt has sent this article to COLSA Dean Wraith, UNH President Huddleston, and Governor Sununu, egged on by John Hart, TSAS Professor Emeritus, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.




Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart