We have now reached critical mass


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.

9 thoughts on “We have now reached critical mass

  1. I am at a small college with a similar story. More and more incoming students are interested in science (and these are students with on average higher SATs and GPAs than the other applicants) and more and more faculty are retiring without being replaced (we are up to 3 missing faculty due to retirements). The college has had a hiring freeze for a number of years allowing only 3 tenure track positions (for the whole college) to be filled each year and are limiting the number of full time temporary faculty. We all are still required to teach for a growing number of students and sections of courses, do service and do research for tenure or promotion. Due to the commitment and enthusiasm of our faculty, we have a thriving research program that includes undergraduates. On top of this we have had a freeze on salaries for 3 years now which is really disheartening for the newest faculty.
    We are asked to do more with less every day.

  2. Hi Terry,

    As an ecologist you understand that your department is a purposeful system. It is made up of parts. Many of them are purposeful systems of their own (e.g. faculty, students, etc.) Additionally, the department itself is a part of the larger university environment. These parts interact with one another to create various outcomes (including stresses). Whether the outcomes of the system match the goals set for it depends on the capability of the parts and how well they fit together.

    I’m curious: how does your department set its goals? Are those goals translated into a plan of action? Are resource requirements calculated? Are those requirements compared with what is actually available? How often is the plan evaluated to check if it is still adequate to meet the goals? If necessary, is the plan or the goals updated to reflect changes?

    No matter the system, there is always a gap between what it does, what it can do and what it is asked to do. That is a source of enormous waste: waste of motivation, waste of capability, waste of time, waste of money, waste of opportunity… This is not to say that people working within the system aren’t doing their best. But a poorly designed system will thwart their best efforts. Proper administrative (i.e. management) effort by all is required. I can imagine an academic might groan at the thought of this, but a little reflection will reveal its importance and shared value.

    I’m glad to read of the changes you write about and that you feel the year has started auspiciously. But unfunded mandates will rear their ugly heads and you will feel you’re being asked to do more with less. That is unless you have a properly designed system with well understood capabilities and limitations.

    Kind regards,
    Shrikant Kalegaonkar

  3. Shrikant,

    This reads to me as if you’re explaining to me that we wouldn’t be overworked if we somehow had an appropriate strategic planning process. If that’s your point, then please know that your point is absurd and also is made without knowing the conditions on the ground.

    It’s not that our system is poorly designed. It’s that the system is attempting to serve four times as many students for which we have reasonable capacity. And we are not willingly going down the road of restructuring so that our students are fed into a system that is designed to provide a poor experience.

    We regularly have a department-level periodic assessment, and a strategic plan that is coupled with the results of that assessment. The last time we got our external evaluation back, the findings were very clear: Our department is doing an outstanding job with the resources that are being given to us, and actually it practically miraculous that we’ve been able to keep doing what we’ve been doing.

    So no, we aren’t experiencing problems because of poor planning on our part.

    The unfunded mandates I’m talking about are elementary, like finding a way to offer sections to students who need classes in their major, and to be able to find time in office hours to have a conversation with our students (as our office hours have been sacrificed to academic advising), to have classes small enough that we actually can evaluate the writing of our students, and to be able to create research opportunities. The very minimum.

  4. Hi Terry,

    You’re right. I don’t know the conditions on the ground. My comment was made within the context of what you shared in your post and with the intent to explore the issues you are dealing with; not criticize your handling of them. This reply is made within the same constraint.

    I believe we are saying the same thing: the system is being asked to do something it is not designed to do. (Here, design includes the appropriation and allocation of resources.) That is, it does not have the resources it needs to do an effective job. When it attempts to serve four times as many students as it is capable of, something will suffer. You wrote:

    “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…”

    Proper planning means matching system design to its design goals. In this case, it might mean increasing resources if the goals can’t be changed. Alternatively, proper planning could also mean matching expectations to the system’s present design. Even as your department does an outstanding job with its available resources, I am sure you will agree that a system cannot perform at peak levels for extended periods of time. I suspect you and others are burned out because the system you are in asked you do something without giving you the means for doing it. That would be par for the course. The system has shifted the burden from itself to you.

    While your department sets certain goals of its own, others are imposed on it, no, (e.g. number of students to serve, class size)? The greater organization must be part of the planning process to set the appropriate goals or you get what you have: inadequate sections for classes, insufficient time for office-hours or evaluating student writing, inability to create research opportunities, and so on. In such a case, your best efforts will not be enough. That is so because the system’s design is inadequate and you work within the system.

    By the way, “poor” is a relative evaluation between what the system can do and what is expected from it.

    Kind regards,
    Shrikant Kalegaonkar

    PS Perhaps I’m doing a poor job of explaining myself. A couple of excellent resources are Dr. Russell L Ackoff’s “Redesigning the Future” and Dr. W Edwards Deming’s “Out of the Crisis”. Check them out when you have a chance.

    I didn’t mean any disrespect to you. Best wishes for you and your colleagues on a productive fulfilling satisfying school year.

  5. Thanks, Shrikant. I see where you’re coming from. I think our Provost’s office would benefit from from doing strategic planning that takes into account what is working and what isn’t, and what we have and what we need, rather than grasping at the latest educational fad.

  6. Sounds like a big improvement. Glad to hear that your department seems to be moving in the right direction.

    how did you get any research and publishing done during that stretch.

    I’m feeling better about my program’s direction too with 2 new tenure-track faculty (out of 4) starting this fall resulting in a full complement of tenure track faculty (plus we gained a second lecturer a couple of years ago) for only the 5th semester in the last 7 years.

  7. dear Terry,
    let’s not forget and mention all the terrific lecturers that the department has, forgot to mention? they are truly the “teachers” of the majority of the classes that face and push the students on daily bases. after all we are also faculty

    • We do have excellent non-tenure-track faculty in the department. It didn’t come up in this post, but this topic has come up in this site in the past. Because the workload of our lecturers is to teach, and not perform the other roles of tenure-track faculty, they cannot be fairly expected to revise curricula, provide research opportunities, serve on committees, do academic advising, and such. The campus has a long tradition of some of the best service coming from people who aren’t paid to do it, which is a painful inequity. I’m thrilled that there are more actively researching ecologists and evolutionary biologists around, which will result in synergies that wouldn’t have been possible without the new tenure-track hires. By no means does that minimize the value of the teaching of the other faculty in the department.

      • It is a tricky balance to hire temporary lecturers and yet give them space and time to build their resume for a more permanent position. I know the temporary faculty at my institution from all disciplines use their summers fully to build their C.V.

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