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Botany, Zoology Move Closer Toward Merger

It's been a slow courtship with several bumps, but the merger of the botany and zoology departments, two of the most respected on campus, is now a step closer to fruition.

Debate began on the proposed merger in the Academic Council this past Thursday, and a vote is expected at the February meeting. Then the merger is expected to be put forward to the trustees this spring.

The merger would form a new department of biology that would be one of the largest in arts and sciences. University officials say that the new department would better meet needs of a rapidly changing discipline. The merger has been endorsed by two university task forces and an external review committee, but the process has been slowed by difficulties in finding the right administrative structure that would successfully merge the two department's cultures.

In discussing the merger, Provost Peter Lange said he wanted to maintain the strengths and qualities of the two departments. At the same time, the unified department will help faculty scholarship move into new and emerging areas of research.

"We have two university reports and an external review arguing that while the two departments are strong in the short term, over the long term, one unified department would allow for more effective exchange of information between the faculties," Lange said.

"As a long-term prospect in a dynamic and innovative field, breaking down the current boundaries and building a large, unified department would create a context for new research and also improve the faculty's ability to establish links to other biological sciences at Duke."

The university has pledged to provide $3 million to improve facilities, including research and teaching labs for the new department, to add three new graduate fellowships and create an interim chair and transition team to identify key issues in the merger.

The proposed new department would involve 40 tenured and tenure-track faculty positions and more than 400 undergraduate majors.

In December, a university task force recommended a structure for the biology department that would include a steering committee comprised of representatives from the major areas of study in biology: plant biology, animal biology, development/behavioral/function, evolutionary biology, ecology and biodiversity. The task force also made recommendations resolving faculty concerns on issues of tenure, merger of the graduate and undergraduate programs and the sequence of events leading to merger on July 1.

The task force report received a 37-0 vote of support by the combined faculties of zoology and botany, but botany professor Steven Vogel noted that vote was simply on the mechanics of the merger. "As far as I know, botany has never voted on whether to endorse the merger. People have gone a long way to make this as smooth as possible, but I'm rather troubled that we are moving on something that has not actually been endorsed," Vogel said.

At Vogel's request, botany chair Donald Stone will be asked to hold such a vote before the next Academic Council meeting. Zoology's faculty has endorsed the merger.

Lange also agreed that there should be a follow-up review of the new department in several years to ensure that things are on track and the goals of the merger are being accomplished. The likely means for the review is the regular external review of departments held every five or six years under the auspices of Graduate School Dean Lewis Siegel.

Richard White, a long-time botany faculty member, noted that the merger was bringing the departments full circle. The department began as biology back in Trinity College. It wasn't until Hugo L. Blomquist arrived at Duke that the botany department was created as a separate entity. White and others said that nearly all major universities have merged their botany and zoology departments in recent years.

Lange added that the creation of the new department is just one of a series of steps that are being taken to keep the sciences at Duke in a top national position. "Life sciences and biological sciences are going to be important points of how we invigorate and strengthen the sciences at Duke."