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Tough times?

December 22, 2008, 1:40 pm

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.

And:

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?

And:

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.

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