‘To kill a program’: Duke to close herbarium after over 100 years of operation

<p>Kathleen Pryer, director of the Duke Herbarium and professor of biology, and Paul Manos, professor in the biology department and associate curator of vascular plants at the Herbarium, observe a specimen in the Herbarium's Biological Sciences space.</p>

Kathleen Pryer, director of the Duke Herbarium and professor of biology, and Paul Manos, professor in the biology department and associate curator of vascular plants at the Herbarium, observe a specimen in the Herbarium's Biological Sciences space.

The Duke Herbarium, one of the largest herbaria in the country, will shut down and have its plants relocated in the next two to three years, according to a Tuesday email obtained by The Chronicle.

“Duke will never be a leader in biodiversity like it was before,” said Kathleen Pryer, professor of biology and director of the herbarium since 2005. “... [Administration] just never discussed with us, never had conversations where ‘let's put our heads together and see what we can do,’ [or] crowdfunding.”

In addition to Pryer, Professors of Biology Francois Lutzoni, Paul Manos, Rytas Vilgalys and Jon Shaw were informed of the administrative decision to shut down the herbarium. 

The Duke Herbarium is the second-largest private university herbarium in the U.S. and is home to more than 825,000 plant specimens, including some specimens almost 200 years old. Universities across the world utilize the herbarium, which is a foundation for research in molecular, biochemical and cytogenetic studies. 

Professors from the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas Tech University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Maine have already expressed their anger with the decision to shut down the herbarium on X. A petition calling for the herbarium to stay open has reached over 1,700 signatories as of Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after it was published. 

“At the same time, we have carefully considered the requirements to maintain [the herbarium] in the manner in which it should be maintained, which would include multiple endowed faculty and staff lines as well as state-of-the-art facilities,” wrote Susan Alberts, dean of natural sciences and Robert F. Durden professor of biology, in the email to five professors of biology. 

“We have concluded that because of this large set of needed resources, it’s in the best interests of both Duke and the herbarium to find a new home or homes for these collections. The collection deserves to be in a facility that has the resources to maintain it for posterity.” 

“We see this is a loss for Duke and we fully appreciate that it is also a major loss for each of you personally, as you have devoted your professional lives to the important work of creating, maintaining, and studying it,” she continued. “But, we do see it as a net positive in the long run for the collection and that is an important consideration.” 

Pryer called the communication a “slap in the face to those of us who devoted our lives to this kind of research.” 

“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,” Alberts wrote in a Thursday evening email to The Chronicle. “We greatly value all the faculty, staff and students who have contributed to the herbarium over the years.”

Pryer says that alternatives were proposed to find funding and create a new building for the herbarium in the gardens, but these proposals were largely ignored.

“A Duke donor contacted me with a $3M proposal, and he wanted to contribute the first $1M. That is when Duke showed its true hand, and rather than use that as a springboard, they told us to shut down,” Pryer wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

While preliminary conversations with a potential donor did take place, the cost of maintaining the herbarium, as well as its staff and faculty positions, would have cost at least $25 million, according to a Friday morning email from Kathryn Kennedy, association dean for communications and marketing. 

Alberts wrote that they considered “numerous possible alternatives” before deciding to close the herbarium, in hopes of “ensur[ing] its preservation into the future.” 

This decision, Pryer said, has much larger implications than just academia. The loss of such a large scientific collection affects not only the botanical community, but also those researching climate change and biodiversity. 

Researchers across the globe use the herbarium for sequencing genomes, planting seeds of decades-old plants, and even discovering new species — a profoundly important method of combating mass extinction and researching the effects that global warming has had on the environment.

“What a way for Duke to celebrate its Centennial commitment to global biodiversity and climate change! Getting rid of its 100-year-old herbarium!” Pryer wrote. 

Alberts told herbarium staff that the majority of herbarium should be moved within the next two to three years. 

But to the staff, this is a sudden decision — and two to three years simply isn’t enough time to relocate 825,000 dried plant specimens that Duke has housed for over a century now.

“The international community is stunned. My email has…just been rocketing. Emails of, ‘This can't be true,’ ‘This can't be, because so many people rely on this collection.’ Its collections are priceless. And we're just going to, what, ship them off? It's not something you just unload on somebody,” Pryer said.

The decision was also made when all five professors were on the verge of retiring. For Pryer, “[closing the herbarium] is not going to just take away a resource, it's going to kill a program.”

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available. 

Editor's Note: This story was updated Friday morning with comment on the alternatives considered before the closing of the herbarium and Friday afternoon with information about a petition calling for the herbarium to remain open. 


Claire Cranford profile
Claire Cranford

Claire Cranford is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.       

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