This academic year started auspiciously.
The hallway bustles with the activity of new faculty. It’s funny that I’ve only been in the department for eight years, but am one of the most senior, on account of retirements, other departures, and new growth.
For the last few years, it’s felt like our department has been in an administrative critical care unit. When I was hired with two other Assistant Professors, the department was still understaffed. Over the next six years, we lost several faculty members and didn’t get any new ones. A couple years ago, we had about 800 majors but only 6 tenure-track faculty members working in the department. (And we do academic advising for every major, every semester, on top of our regular workload. That’s usually eight advising appointments in a single week.) Things have been unsustainable.
With the extraordinary workload and lack of support, we temporarily suspended our graduate program, another affiliated program went moribund, and we all pretty much got burnt out. I got entirely fed up with unfunded mandates for student success and faculty productivity, and am still mostly fed up about the disconnect between the rhetoric and actual support.
But in the past two years, we’ve hired four tenure-track faculty members. They are letting us quantitatively increase the courses taught by tenure-track faculty and students doing research. On top of that, they have introduced a qualitative change to how thing are happening in the department. They have high expectations for their research, their teaching, and how the university should be supporting their work. And they expect our department to be a vibrant academic community, which frankly we haven’t been during my time, because merely treading water has been a challenge. Now we’re about to swim. It’s actually starting to feel like a real university.
We can’t really afford to hire more than one person in any category. For example, we have one plant person, one insect person (me), one microbiologist (after one retires soon), and one developmental person. This sounds unfocused, but when you add a few people, synergies happen.
Now we have a few people who work in evolutionary biology, and a few ecologists, a few organismal biologists, and a few people who do genomics. A number of us are regularly in the field, and a few of us are doing cell culture (I think).
And these people were hired with the ability to run an active student-centered research lab while teaching well. Now that we might not be overworked so badly, this honeymoon period looks mighty bright, and the infusion of new ideas and priorities is bringing out the best for all of us.
Our department remains under-resourced and working conditions are still difficult. But we can still do something that resembles thriving, and hope that attrition to other pastures doesn’t happen too quickly. Our university doesn’t have a strong history of working to keep its most productive faculty. But that won’t keep me from appreciating this ephemeral moment when we’ve hit critical mass.
By the way, all our new professors are women.