Less of the Math-Physics-Astronomy Library may be repurposed following outcry from mathematics students and faculty.
Members of the math department are speaking out against the conversion of part of the library in David Rittenhouse Laboratory into an active learning classroom. The construction in DRL is scheduled to begin this summer, and the Towne Building’s Engineering Library will close entirely after this semester.
Mathematics professor David Harbater teamed up with mathematics doctoral candidate Neel Patel to draft and circulate a petition protesting changes to the DRL library. The petition, with more than 500 signatures, was submitted to the provost last Monday.
“Such a decision should not be a fait accompli,” the petition reads. “We call on the administration to involve the mathematical community at UPenn in this process and not to take sudden action before other options can be considered fully and openly.”
A second online petition has also garnered more than 500 signatures. The University has not yet responded to the protests, but revisions to the original plan are being made, said Dean of the College Dennis DeTurck, who is also a professor of mathematics.
DeTurck said that the administration wants to balance the interests of graduate students with “faculty momentum” toward active learning pedagogy. Under the new plan, only 20 percent of the library would be remodeled and all mathematics texts could remain within the room. The plan has not yet been proposed to students.
Mathematics graduate students say that efforts to solicit student opinions were inadequate before original decisions were made. “These are unilateral decisions made by the higher-ups in the administration,” said mathematics doctoral candidate Simon Cho. “Now they’re OK kind of ruling by fiat.”
Students were given limited time - less than 40 minutes, Cho said - to express their thoughts on the decision in a March 5 meeting with Vice Provost and Director of Libraries H. Carton Rogers III.
“They basically told us that if we didn’t come up with a better suggestion within the span of the ... meeting, they would go ahead with it,” Cho said.
Mathematics doctoral candidate Brett Frankel emphasized that graduate-level mathematics research is very dependent on print sources. One source often references another, and a mathematics graduate student might go through five sources before finding the needed information, Frankel said.
Many mathematical texts do not exist in electronic form, and books stored off-site at a warehouse in New Jersey, which was the University’s original plan for the texts, would take four to five days to access - a potentially crippling amount of time for a researcher.
There are alternatives to repurposing part of the Math-Physics-Astronomy Library, including building the active learning classroom on DRL’s ground floor where there are currently auditorium-style classrooms. Cho, Patel and Frankel acknowledged that other plans have drawbacks, as well - like further taxing DRL’s overbooked classrooms - but felt that maintaining a working library is of paramount importance for the math department.
Cho, Patel and Frankel also said that sacrificing library space could lead Penn to sacrifice promising prospective students, as well.
“When prospective grad students [and faculty] come visit, we can’t truthfully tell them we have a library,” Patel said. And that, Frankel added, is enough to dissuade admitted students from attending.
Patel, who was an active learning TA , accepted that changes must be made to accommodate it, but wished the changes were not at the cost of graduate learning and faculty research. “I think it’s kind of the wrong way to go about it if you have to cannibalize the things that make up a strong education,” Cho said.
Frankel agreed. “This library that we have is a very, very valuable resource and that if Penn still aspires to be an elite research institution, they’ll leave that alone,” he said.