Petition calling for Duke Herbarium to stay open surpasses 9,400 signatures

A petition urging the University to reconsider closing the Duke Herbarium has reached over 1,700 signatures within 24 hours. By Monday evening, over 9,400 people signed onto it.

The petition was created Thursday by Jillian Goodwin, conference manager for the Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio), which publicizes data and images for millions of biological specimens in electronic format.

Several leading organizations in botany and natural history collections signed a description accompanying the petition, including the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Society of Plant Taxonomists, iDigBio, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Society of Herbarium Curators and The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

“Herbaria are not just repositories of plant specimens, they are living libraries of life on Earth,” the description reads. “They hold the keys to understanding our planet’s diverse flora and provide invaluable resources for research, education and conservation efforts.”

The herbarium, which is the second-largest private herbarium owned by a university in the country, is set to shut down due to a lack of adequate resources to maintain the collection, according to a Tuesday email obtained by The Chronicle. The over 825,000 plant specimens will be relocated to other storage facilities over the next two to three years.

Susan Alberts, dean of the natural sciences in Trinity College and Robert F. Durden professor of biology, explained the University’s reasoning for the closure in a statement to The Chronicle Thursday evening.

“Academic leaders in Trinity College have made the difficult decision to discontinue investment in the Duke Herbarium, due to outdated facilities that would require significant funding and years of displacement to upgrade. Discussions have already begun with respected and established potential recipients for the specimens,” Alberts wrote.

Kathryn Kennedy, associate dean for communications and marketing at the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, wrote in a statement to The Chronicle Friday morning that estimated costs to “improve the facility and to endow multiple faculty and staff positions” would come to a minimum of $25 million.

The petition description noted that there are currently approximately 3,000 active herbaria worldwide, with a combined collection of 350 million specimens. It stated that the closure of Duke’s herbarium would contribute to a “significant loss in this global effort” to preserve information about Earth’s biodiversity.

“Duke University has always been known as a beacon of scientific research and education. Its commitment toward advancing knowledge should not waver when it comes to preserving our natural heritage,” the description read. “By closing their herbarium, they risk losing valuable opportunities for future discoveries that could have profound impacts on our understanding of the world.”

The announcement of the closure prompted significant backlash from the scientific community at Duke and beyond, with many professors expressing their disappointment about the sudden announcement and the impact on those who have dedicated their careers to research using the herbarium’s resources.

“We are very sorry to learn that people felt the news was communicated suddenly and in a condescending way; this was far from our intention. We greatly value all the faculty, staff and students who have contributed to the herbarium over the years,” Alberts wrote.

Many of the petition’s signatories spoke to the importance of such plant collections in preserving biodiversity and informing scientists about how biological communities adapt to environmental change, an objective of greater significance in the context of ecological destruction caused by climate change.

“Herbaria and other museum collections are INVALUABLE resources for understanding trends and finding solutions to local or regional ecological threats posed by climate change,” wrote signatory Lawrence Kirkendall in the “reasons for signing” section accompanying the petition.

“The cost of personnel and maintaining facilities is trivial compared to the financial BENEFIT gained through data-driven targeting of conservation efforts!” signatory Chase Mason wrote.

Some of the petition’s supporters expressed concern about the limited capacity of other herbaria to accommodate the plants currently located at Duke, casting doubt on the University’s ability to rehouse all specimens. Signatory Scott Namestnik pointed out that the large collection will likely be split between several herbaria, which might strain the resources of those herbaria and “set a precedent for universities that are not as well funded as Duke that it is okay for them to get rid of their herbaria.” 

Others called the closure of the herbaria hypocritical, especially given Duke’s strong emphasis on environmental innovation through the Duke Climate Commitment

“What is the point of a school if not the preservation and dissemination of knowledge?” signatory Amit Jain wrote. 

Editor's Note: This article was updated Friday evening, Saturday morning and Sunday evening to include the new signatory count.

Zoe Kolenovsky profile
Zoe Kolenovsky | News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


Share and discuss “Petition calling for Duke Herbarium to stay open surpasses 9,400 signatures” on social media.