Tough times?

Via Instapundit, here’s a letter from Soren Sorenson, chair of the University of Tennessee Department of Physics, titled “Tough Times”. In it, Prof. Sorenson details the effects of the economic downturn on the physics department:

Our department used to have a large group of lecturers and adjunct teaching staff, who would be responsible for many of our large service courses and general education courses. Over the past several years we have lost many of them and have not had any funds to replace them, so we are now down to only 3 lecturers. This has placed a strong teaching responsibility on our faculty and they have responded extremely well. Our physics faculty is now teaching more student credit hours than any other department at the university, because our faculty members have been willing and have had the skills to teach general education astronomy and physics for biologists, engineers, and architects. In many other departments the students do not meet a real professor before classes at the 200 or 300 level!

This high efficiency, however, is coming at a cost. There is no more “slack” in the system in the form of professors that can teach more courses. If we have to implement additional budget cuts, we will have to cancel classes. This will result in much higher student dissatisfaction and, more importantly, longer graduation times for our majors, since many students will not be able to schedule 15 credit hours each semester. [All emphases added.]

I’m sure that the physicists at UT are excellent and dedicated teachers, and I do understand the enhanced role of pure research at a large university versus a small college like the one where I am employed, and I further understand that teaching sucks up time for research at a nonlinear pace. I believe most of the commenters at this piece do as well, but somehow they’re not really sympathetic:

I want to feel sympathy for you, but I have to wonder, have you received raises the past 3 years? At my company, there have been no salary increases in three years. The hourly employees have received increases, of less than 2%, which is less than the increases in insurance rates they have seen, for a net loss in pay.


I am sincerely puzzled. Did I just read that it takes about 175 people to support about 25 faculty…who produce a whopping three lecturers between them? Did I read that right?


Their faculty has a strong teaching responsibility? Oh, the horrors! [/sarcasm]

But seriously–I know that universities are strong centers of research and all that, but doesn’t it strike anyone else as odd that there are “professors” who, up to this point, were doing very little teaching? If I ran a university, everyone up to and including the president would teach a class, so as to not lose sight of why the university was established in the first place.

Other suggestions from the commenters include jettisoning administrators, eliminating the various “Studies” departments, and just simply trying to conceive of doing well with fewer resources. I think that if higher ed people end up looking for a Federal bailout, they’d better not get their hopes up.

It does seem like university departments, who are undoubtedly feeling very real effects of the economic downturn, aren’t handling them quite like the private sector would and have a much different set of assumptions than the average small business with an equivalently-sized workforce. Frankly, if “high efficiency” means that you actually have professors teaching freshman classes (what a concept!) and a “strong teaching responsibility” is seen as some burden to be shouldered, then those assumptions are not going to get you very far in a tough economy.

Perhaps the big universities need to come see how we do it at the small colleges, where there are precisely zero TA’s, everybody teaches, and everybody does research — all at the same time, and with a much smaller budget and workforce.


Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia

13 responses to “Tough times?

  1. virusdoc

    If I had to teach more than 1 to 2 preps per year, I would no longer have the time to manage my graduate students’ research time, write manuscripts, establish collaborations, and submit the 4+ grants per year necessary to fund my research. (That is, unless I worked close to 80 hours per week and abandoned my family). Since my contract and my tenure depends on my doing all these things, your assertion that I simply abandon them is not helpful to anyone in my shoes.

    Universities don’t exist simply to propagate what is known; they also exist to add to that body of knowledge. And although I know that many faculty at small colleges spend time on “research”, it’s not at the level that attracts large-scale federal or private money, and it is generally not in areas of high or pressing significance in their fields. In my field especially, the questions I need to address take so many resources they could never be accomplished at a small college.

    For a university like mine to push its research-intensive faculty into a teaching-intensive role would have severe negative consequences for our students and our institution. In many instances, some of our best (read: most well funded) researchers aren’t the most gifted teachers, especially at the undergrad level. In addition, the federal money these researchers bring in supports much of the university infrastructure, so loss of that research income would involve a necessary reduction in university resources or increases in tuition/state appropriations. Finally, if our research stature were to slip below its current level, this would negatively impact our ability to attract large numbers of high quality students, further reducing the quality of the classroom environment.

    So you’re not asking for research faculty to simply “tighten their belts”. What you suggest would in fact require a complete redefinition of our institutions’ identities. This concern–not a laziness or fear of teaching–is what makes most conscientious research professors reluctant to leave the research bench for the lectern.

    In summary, while I don’t personally find your comments offensive, they do seem somewhat self-righteous and to be made out of ignorance for what is involved in “research” at a research institution. Since I know you’ve trained at at least one such institution, I’m perplexed at your comments.

  2. I don’t believe I suggested that any research professor abandon his or her responsibilities or for research universities to change who they are. What I did say is that the set of assumptions that research universities hold for their existence — a heavy emphasis on research with a correspondingly light emphasis on teaching, a dependence on grant money (and the time necessary to propose those grants), a corresponding dependence on research stature, and a massive layer of bureaucracy at the top level of the university — does not seem particularly well-suited to the kind of economy into which we are entering, and to the extent that universities stick to this set of assumptions, they are going to feel the pinch more and more acutely as the economy gets worse.

    It is fully possible for research universities, I think, to maintain 2-3 of these assumptions as long as they are willing to make concessions on the others. For example, university departments can hum along just like they do now in terms of research and the way they implement teaching *if* they are willing to make some cuts in administrative layers and perhaps kill off programs that consume more than they produce. (Not naming names here.) Or, they can keep that administrative layer and any number of unproductive programs they want as long as they are willing and able to shift teaching responsibilities to professors and lose a good number of their non-tenure track faculty. But I certainly don’t think — and I believe that economic realism bears this out — that they can have it all at the same levels that they do now and expect to be financially solvent.

    And I don’t think it’s self-righteous or ignorant to point to the way small colleges operate and feel some sense of pride that we are managing to produce outstanding graduates who are taught by professors, who can produce good research of their own, and who go on to compete very favorably in the job and grad school market with graduates from research universities — and that we manage to do it on a budget that’s a fraction the size of even that of some individual departments at larger universities. As I say, I don’t expect research universities to change their model — indeed, my chief observation is that they almost cannot do so, and that’s the problem.

    And as a final note, small colleges aren’t universally good at operating in a lean and productive way, either, and to the extent that small colleges have a disproportionate number of administrators and use their resources unwisely, they’ll feel the same pinch.

  3. I should add that one way that research universities *can* have it all as the economy worsens is to generate more donations from alumni. The smart universities — and the smart small colleges — are making this happen. But it’s not easy and the one administrative position that can really pay for itself is the one held by the person in charge of raising money.

  4. virusdoc

    I’m all for eliminating vast swaths of administration. But I suspect that’s just because I don’t understand what they do. At my departmental level, I do know that all the administrators and staff work their tails off, and when they aren’t here I miss their skills and labor. At the college/school/university level, it’s less clear to me what goes on. There seems to be an awful lot of “strategic planning”, which almost always ends up producing vague but agreeable, common sense next steps for progress (but taking over a year to do so), and then proceeding to not achieve them.

    Your response deserves time I can’t give it now–we’re on the road for Christmas. If I can manage to steal 20 minutes away from the kids in the next few days I’ll revisit this.

  5. virusdoc

    Robert: I think you hit the nail on the head with your observation, two comments up, that research institutions cannot change their business model. They have massive research infrastructures built during an era of ever-expanding federal funding. These infrastructures include not only buildings and equipment, but the faculty, staff, students, postdocs, and administration that supports them. We are now approaching the middle of our first decade of static (or contracting) federal research support, and things are very grim–especially for new faculty like myself. Only 1 in 10 NIH grant applications is now funded. I am nearing the end of my “startup” period (where my research expenses and salary are paid by the university). If I don’t acquire federal funding within 6 months, my career at my institution is over. This will also mean severe career disruptions for my four students. Many of my colleagues are in the same situation. And I cannot envision a way for my department (or institution) to reduce its faculty size without severely curtailing every aspect of our mission.

    The greatest tragedy of this situation (from my perspective) is that higher education and the creation of new knowledge/technology are one of the few professions where the United States still excels. If we stop training the majority of the world’s PhDs, I don’t know what there is left for us to do as a nation.

    Your suggestion that research universities kill off programs that consume more than they bring in is unfortunately what I think will happen. But this necessarily means gutting the liberal arts programs. This has already happened to a large extent at my institution, but I expect to see more cuts. This is a tragedy from an educational perspective. I still cling to the ideal that universities should educate the whole person, and should produce graduates who understand not only molecular biology, but also the humanities. Increasingly, it is not technological or scientific obstacles that inhibit progress in my field–it is the complexities of human social, economic, and political structures that prevents the deployment of technologies to the people who need them most. When confronted with such challenges, I don’t know whether Shakespeare or molecular genetics is more important for solving the next big problem.

  6. I don’t think that the (inevitable, IMO) paring back of programs that we’re talking about here necessarily involves the “gutting” of “liberal arts programs”. I don’t think that you have to get rid of half the English department. I do think that you have to take a hard look at some of the fringe programs on campus that are neither at the core of the liberal arts (such as English, history, etc. or even music) nor important producers for the university (like the STEM fields or education). Such programs would include the “Studies” majors (American Studies, Womens’ Studies, etc.) and perhaps some niche areas that consume a lot in terms of faculty compensation and administration but do not produce much in return.

    I wouldn’t even say that those programs would need to be entirely killed off (although that option should be on the table) but pared back — perhaps temporarily, while we ride out the economic downturn — and offer courses without having majors, for example. That would allow students options to study in these areas without forcing the university to commit to hiring (and eventually tenuring) faculty and administrators to run those programs.

    So I think universities can, and indeed must, have a well-rounded approach to education in an economic downturn, but this is a long way from saying we have to have full-blown curricula and majors and so forth in everything we think is interesting.

  7. And as a cautionary tale, my first employer out of grad school — a Christian liberal arts college — was operating on a shoestring budget with a dangerously miniscule endowment. Programs were badly understaffed and facilities (such as the science labs) badly out-of-date. But the administrators decided they simply HAD to start up a Youth Ministries major. There were grand projections on how this was going to pull in lots of students (= tuition revenue).

    I asked in a faculty meeting two questions: (1) how were we going to be able to afford the faculty and facilities to staff this program, if it’s going to grow as fast as they say it will, given that we have a tiny budget and other needs that are urgent; and (2) why the already-existing Christian Ministries major was insufficient for the task. I was told, (1) don’t worry, we can pull it off with just the one faculty member currently teaching Youth Ministries, and (2) shut up, can’t you see we NEED this major?

    Almost ten years later, they have the same sized endowment but have had to hire four tenure-track faculty member to meet the demand for the courses. The money had to come from somewhere else.

  8. virusdoc

    Hmm. So I perused the Undergrad Liberal Arts majors at my esteemed institution and found this astoundingly list:

    Acting, Advertising (See Communication), African American Studies, Anthropology, Art Education, Art History, Asian Studies, Athletic Training, Behavioral Neuroscience*, Classical Studies, Communication, Comparative Literature, Creative Writing, Criminal Justice (See Law and Society), English, English Education, Film and Video Studies, Fine Arts, French, French Education, German, German Education, Graphic Design (See Visual Communication Design), Health and Fitness, Health and Safety Education, Health Promotion, History, Industrial (Consumer Product) Design, Interior (Space Planning) Design, Interpersonal Communication, Italian Studies, Japanese, Jewish Studies, Journalism (See Mass Communication), Latin, Law and Society, Linguistics, Mass Communication, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Movement and Sport Sciences, Organizational Communication, Personal Fitness Training, Philosophy, Photography, Physical Education, Political Science, Professional Writing, Psychology Public Relations and Rhetorical Advocacy, Religious Studies, Russian, Sociology, Spanish, Spanish Education, Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, Speech Therapy, Theatre, Visual Communication Design, Visual and Performing Arts, Women’s Studies.

    What, no major in Mid-Twentieth Century Sitcoms (*Seinfeld minor available)?

    Yeah, I think I can see where some fat can be trimmed. Many of these programs seem highly redundant. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t see any problem with these programs per se. But do they really belong at an insitution primarly known for its STEM disciplines? And how many of these degree programs actually result in an employable graduate in this economy? I have to imagine the faculty in these programs aren’t leaders in their fields, if only because of where they are employed. If a student really wants a degree in one of these highly specialized disciplines, surely they should go to an institution known for that area.

  9. virusdoc

    “astoundingly _complete_ list”. Blogs need grammar checkers.

    And Seinfeld would technically be _Late_ Twentieth century, eh? 🙂

  10. Right. And it’s important to add that by “liberal arts” we mean the trivium and quadrivium — not necessarily the entire list of stuff that shows up in the “undergraduate liberal arts” list of majors. There’s bona fide liberal arts, and then there’s “Seinfeld Studies” (with a minor in First Two Seasons Studies).

  11. Also, I was surprised to see that you guys don’t offer a Music major. I guess that’s more the strength of the Other Big Public University.

    Edit: Or is Music somewhere else in the catalog?

  12. virusdoc

    No school of music here. We make our music by blowing our train whistles.

  13. dean

    It could be worse. I’m employed at a small, private business school. The recently departed president had no experience in higher education (although, as the joke went, he knew some places in our state offered it) before he was hired. He immediately hired new people, none of whom had taught, and replaced the old administration. (Some pearls of wisdom: don’t put “Dr. …” on your syllabus, it can intimidate our customers (students). Don’t put your schedule on your office door, it isn’t professional.”)
    Over the years he was in office, faculty raises were (almost constantly) 1.2%. His (and other admins at high levels) averaged 10%-13% raises, for keeping costs low. When he left he was making more than all other university presidents, save one, in the state (public and private)