Criminology and criminal justice program struggles with limited funding

By Jenny Hottle, Senior staff writer

Monday, Feb. 11, 2013

Originally posted on diamondbackonline.com

Taylor Gross struggled to decide on a major. But during summer 2012, the junior decided criminology and criminal justice was the perfect fit — not unlike many of her peers at the university.

Gross knew taking part in the program — one of the top-ranked for criminology and criminal justice in the country — would open up unprecedented opportunities. She has landed an internship with this state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and plans to be a teaching assistant next semester — all of which she credits to the accessibility of her professors, who have helped her transition to a new major.

Graphic by Kelsey Marotta/The Diamondback
Graphic by Kelsey Marotta/The Diamondback

But the program isn’t perfect, and there’s still much work to be done, some students and officials said. Over the past year, the department and a University System of Maryland committee reviewed the undergraduate and graduate criminology programs and found they have seen a turnover of about half of the department since they were last reviewed in 2005. While the undergraduate major is the most popular on the campus and the graduate program is the top-ranked in the nation, department officials said they are understaffed and do not have enough funding.

“The problem is there’s not enough bodies, not enough faculty,” department Chairman James Lynch said.

The program’s review is part of a routine process. Every academic program in the system goes through an external and internal review process at least every seven years, during which departments create a plan of action to make improvements or address weaknesses.

Although the program attracts influential faculty members, offers students research opportunities on critical security issues and has four distinguished professors, it has fewer than 20 faculty members and struggles with funding. It became a limited-enrollment program in 2009 because it was too popular for so few faculty members, said Charles Wellford, a criminology and criminal justice professor.

By limiting the number of students in the program, officials can maintain the desired small student-to-faculty ratio. Despite having few faculty members, Wellford said, those in the department are highly qualified and among the best in the field.

“When you have very good faculty, that’s what happens — people come after our positions and we recruit them,” Wellford said. “What happened in our case is we’ve been able to replace them with new individuals who bring new ideas, new areas of approach.”

For example, the department hired Gary LaFree in 2000 to fill a vacant spot. LaFree created, and now directs, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, one of the leading terrorism research centers in the world, Wellford said.

And Lynch, who was appointed chairman in January, was the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics director.

“That’s what happens — good people are attracted [to the program] and some of them leave,” Wellford said. “Then you go out and get new people who are good and bring new strengths.”

The personal knowledge and experience professors bring to their classes keep students engaged in course topics, said sophomore Tim Stipa.

“Some classes are more interesting than others, but that all depends on what topics of the criminal justice system are to your personal liking,” Stipa said. “There’s not much I really dislike about the program so far. Overall, I’ve definitely had a positive experience with it.”

But some courses, while interesting, could be more rigorous, several criminology and criminal justice majors said — a sentiment also expressed in the program reviews.

“I acknowledge that upper-level CCJS classes are not the most difficult, but I believe the class experience is what you make it,” said Gross, adding the addition of a capstone-like class could help students prepare for the transition from undergraduate to graduate school or to a career.

“My current internship is helping me prepare for my career, and I know other students could also gain a lot from an internship experience,” said Gross, who plans to attend law school after graduation.

The department has had plans to create capstone courses, but doesn’t have enough faculty members to implement them, Wellford said. However, the department has been able to expand its honors program over the past 10 or 12 years, he said, offering a series of smaller-sized classes focused on topics such as immigration and crime or violent crimes for advanced students.

The other main issue, program reviewers said, is finding increased funding for doctoral candidates and improving the time it takes for students to receive their doctorates, something the graduate program is already working on, said Laura Dugan, the department’s director of graduate studies.

“It’s hard because one of the strengths — getting students engaged in research early on — also slows them down,” Dugan said. “[Graduate students] are marketable because they already have experience, but it slows down the time to graduation.”

But the department is now focusing on more accountability, Dugan said, noting that in previous years, some graduate students would get a job while still in school, leading them to leave the university for a few years and then return to complete their degrees.

Now, “to make sure students don’t fall between the cracks,” they must fill out annual reports on what they accomplished during the year, Dugan said.

And while funding for graduate students, as well as hiring more renowned faculty members, remains one of the program’s ultimate goals, students said they’re still impressed with the curriculum and experiences they’ve had.

“I’ve still got more than two years to go before I graduate,” Stipa said. “But so far I feel like the program is doing a good job preparing me for a future career.”

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