Students demand geography
By Ken Fountain
Senior Staff Writer
A group of students plan to submit a petition
to the UH System Board of Regents Thursday to seek the re-establishment
of a geography major program.
If approved by the Texas Legislature, it
would mark the first time in more than two decades that the discipline,
which has undergone "tremendous growth" in recent years, would be given
degree-level status here.
Between 500 and 600 students signed a petition
backing the proposal, said sophomore University Studies major Bill Funderburke.
He and a few other "wannabe geography majors,"
as he puts it, will present their case to the board members along with
Jeffrey Meyerson, head of Geographic Information Systems at Reliant Energy,
and Richard Boehm, head of the geography program at Southwest Texas State
University in San Marcos.
Meyerson will make the case for the growing
demand for geographers in business and government. That demand is sparked
by the growing use of GIS, a computer program that uses satellite images
to display geographic details along with a wide range of other data, Funderburke
Over the last few years, it has been used
in more and more fields, including the petrochemical field, real estate
and urban planning, he said.
"Businesses are saying that we have all
this data, but we need geographers to interpret it for us," he said.
UH already offers 35 hours of geography
courses. The major program was discontinued in 1979, and the minor degree
was phased out in 1993.
"There's never been an adequate explanation
as to why (it was phased out)," said Michael Doran, a senior research fellow
at UH's Center for the Americas who has been teaching geography courses
at UH for five years. "It seems to have been just a matter of a switch
being turned off."
"It's a very good applied discipline,"
he said. "It allows you to learn why things are where they are."
Doran said that geography began to lose
favor in the late 1970s and 1980s because maps, its principal product,
were so labor-intensive to create. But now, using GIS, "computers can spit
out maps in an instant."
"Right now, you can walk out of school
with a geography degree and land a job," he said.
Doran has led students to the small island
nation of Grenada, off the coast of Venezuela, to conduct summer classes
for the last two years. He said that five of the six students who went
on the trip two years ago have already written papers that will appear
shortly in peer-reviewed journals.
"For undergraduate students, that's a degree
of excellence that is unheard of," he said. "It indicates the need to build
up an energetic program that already exists."
Currently, only Doran and Victor Moat teach
geography courses at UH. Doran said that creating a full degree program
would require the addition of two or three instructors.
"When you compare the cost of that to the
huge increase in funds the University is seeking for Tier One status, it's
ridiculously small," Doran said.
All other major universities in Texas,
including Texas A&M and the University of Texas, have a full-fledged
geography program, he said. At Southwest Texas State, there are "hundreds
and hundreds" of geography students, including 35 to 40 doctorate candidates.
He said the proposal has met only "passive
resistance" from the administration.
"They've basically just been ignoring it,"