Akron, Ohio — There is trouble afoot at the University of Akron's vaunted and internationally known College of Polymer Science and Engineering.
And that's trouble for one of Ohio's most important industries as well.
“My first thought is: ‘Is (the polymer college) important?' And the answer is: ‘Duh!' ” said PolymerOhio executive director Bruce Fawcett. “They are a huge asset for our industry.”
The most startling evidence of problems at the school came Friday, March 2, when the university announced that Polymer College dean Eric Amis will relinquish his position in June, though he will continue to serve as a tenured faculty member.
But that's hardly the extent of the issues facing what is the university's best known and arguably most important program.
The announcement of Amis stepping down came after about a quarter of the college's top faculty has left over the past two to three years. It also came less than a week after associate dean of research Matthew Becker was quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal criticizing the way the university has managed the college — and just two days after Amis sat down with Crain's Cleveland Business to discuss the matter in Akron. Crain's also talked with Becker before the announcement.
In announcing Amis' change in status, the university did not give a reason but said it “appreciates Eric's passionate work on behalf of the College” and that provost Rex Ramsier will “work with the College to establish a transition plan, including leadership of the College after June 30th.”
Whoever takes over may face the same challenges as Amis, though —chief among them how to retain top talent at a struggling institution.
Faculty at the polymer college has dropped from 40 to 30 during the past few years as senior professors have been poached by other schools or retired and have not been replaced by the cash-strapped university.
In his interview before the announcement, Amis predicted more likely will leave, as some existing faculty members are eligible for retirement — and can work elsewhere after they do — while others may continue to be recruited by other schools.
“I think we'll be smaller,” Amis said, when asked to predict what the school will look like in a year. In a January assessment of the polymer college, prepared by its faculty, a lack of competitive compensation, relative to competing intuitions, was cited as a top concern.
UA President Matt Wilson, however, said in an interview before the Amis announcement that the complaint is a university-wide one, and the polymer college is actually one of the few areas of the university getting any new money for faculty replacements this year.
The losses seem likely to continue, though. Becker didn't say whether he intends to stay and hinted that he is seriously considering leaving.
“I've had a lot of opportunities to leave in the last five years … I've had five or six interviews this year, and I take them a little more seriously now,” Becker said.
But he predicted there will be more departures.
“I can't count on one hand the number of people I know have had interviews recently,” Becker said.
Those who have already left include big names in the field of polymers, such as Alamgir Karim, former associate dean of research and the university's Goodyear chair, who left to go to the University of Houston in September. Karim, who is still listed on the polymer college's website as an adjunct professor, was followed in October by George Newkome, former head of the university's graduate school and a leading scientist and faculty member who retired. Before them, William Landis retired early from the school as a tenured professor and left an endowed chair when he was denied permission to take a year's sabbatical to study and work at the University of California. In the summer of 2016, Polymer Engineering Department co-founder Mukerrem Cakmak left to become a professor at Purdue University.
Such losses hurt, Becker said, because they represent the cream of the crop in polymer science. The faculty members, or more accurately their work and research, can't be easily or quickly replaced, Becker said.
“It takes four or five years to build an ecosystem around (a new researcher). When you lose someone like Newkome or Landis, even though they were at the end of their careers … it will take 10 years to replace what they built,” he said.
To nearly no one's surprise, the root of the matter is money. Wilson said that he's unable to fund new hires at the polymer college the way he'd like but said the reason is plain to see.
“We used to have 30,000 students. Today, I have 22,000,” he said to sum up the situation.
He also said he already is giving the polymer college more than other areas of the university.
The college's needs come not only at a time when the university has no money to spare, the needs are also expensive to meet. Hiring for the polymer college is not like hiring a new English professor or administrator. The college's new hires are leading researchers and each requires a lab that comes with startup costs that can easily surpass $500,000 and sometimes $1 million, both Wilson and Amis said.
For example, both Amis and Newkome said Karim told them that the University of Houston put up more than $2 million for his startup there. Karim could not be reached for comment.
Some, including Becker, want UA to increase funding for the polymer college — which they view as the university's core competency — even if that means starving other parts of UA.
If others also leave as predicted, it won't be good for the polymer college, the university, the city of Akron or for an entire international industry.
In Ohio, polymers might just be the state's single largest industrial sector, according to PolymerOhio's Fawcett.
“There's been some consolidation, but we still count around 2,000 companies in the state,” he said.
Companies around the state turn to the UA's polymer program not only for graduates, but businesses also take advantage of special pilot programs at the school, giving Ohio companies access to special equipment and expertise they would not otherwise have, Fawcett said.
He also said he's supplying information to economic development entities, such as JobsOhio, which use both the strength of Ohio's polymer industry and UA's polymer college to attract new companies to the state.
Fairlawn-based A. Schulman's chief operating officer, Gary Miller, echoed Fawcett's endorsement of the school's importance and went a step further. It's not just area R&D departments that are filled with graduates from the college, but many end up in the C-suites of area companies later in their careers as well.
“I think it's more powerful and more important than maybe it's thought of when you just talk about the technical side of it,” Miller said. “It casts a net far wider than just the technical community. … It's very important to the region, and beyond, because of that.”
Miller and Fawcett also agree on something with Amis, Becker, Wilson and others: They don't want to see the college further diminished.
In a statement following the Amis announcement, the university stressed that the polymer college is still a major player in its field.
“However, even with the overall reduction in the number of PSPE faculty members, UA still has more faculty than most other polymer institutions in the country. This year, UA has prioritized polymers by already hiring one tenure-track faculty member in Polymer Engineering and actively preparing for the addition of two more tenure-track faculty members: one in Polymer Science and another one in Polymer Engineering,” it stated.