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Expanding the faculty

Theme/tags: Grinnell, the faculty, rants [1]

The other day, I was talking with a colleague about the husk [2]. The College is spending something like $140 million on the husk. In comparison, a new chaired position at the College costs $5 million. I believe that the interest on that $5 million pays the costs of a faculty line ad infinitum. So it seems that we could add 28 new faculty lines instead of building the husk [3,4]. That many new lines could have a variety of positive effects on the College, not least of which is decreasing our student to faculty ratio to something like seven to one. I wonder what the impact of that low a ratio would be on admissions [5]. My colleague said something like I’d teach in a garage if it allowed us to have enough faculty lines. I’m not sure that I’d go that far, but I really do wish that our President and Trustees thought more carefully about the benefits of expanding the faculty.

In any case, once I started thinking about expanding the faculty, I started considering where I would allocate new faculty lines if I had that power. Of course, if I really had that power, I’d start by talking to colleagues to think broadly about what would help the institution. We could do a lot of creative things with new faculty lines. And I certainly don’t know all of the needs on campus.

But you have to start somewhere. So I’ll make my own list. In making the list, I must admit that I am thinking inside a box of my own, represented by the current teaching and departmental models at Grinnell. I had thought of grouping the new positions into categories (e.g., to meet student demand, supporting core liberal arts, new areas of study), but decided that I would prefer to just list positions as they came to mind. Here are some positions I think Grinnell should consider adding.

  • Computer science. I’ll start closest to home. If we wanted to offer the curriculum we should offer to our majors, and we continued to need to support between fifty and sixty majors in each class year, we need two more tenure-line positions [7]. But even with those two additional lines, things will sill be relatively tight, so I’d give CS three positions to include a little slack. That slack would accommodate unexpected leaves, a few more regular Tutorials [8,9], and the ability to participate in the various initiatives on campus, such as bridging courses [10].
  • Architecture. Grinnell does not have an architecture program, so this line would probably go into Art History. This case is not so much a line as a person. We have an amazing visitor teaching our architecture courses. They are an alum of the College. They do really creative things in their courses, taking students to museums around the country and places around the world. Students love them and their classes are popular. They are valued enough that they appeared on the latest issue of the Grinnell Magazine. We should avail ourselves of the opportunity to keep them here.
  • Classics. Two years ago, Classics temporarily lost a tenure-line position to either CS or Biology [11]. That position needs to be restored. Classics is a key aspect of a liberal arts education and we need to have a fully staffed Classics department.
  • Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. GWSS is in a strange situation. I believe they have two tenure-line positions. But one of the faculty who occupies those positions is serving a long-term stint as an administrator. GWSS is a popular major and many courses are also popular for non-majors. It would be good to see one more tenure-line position in the department.
  • Mathematics and Statistics. As far as I can tell, all of the 100- and 200-level courses in Mathematics and Statistics fill every semester. I know that Statistics 209 regularly has a waiting list of about one or two sections full of people (that is, somewhere between 20 and 50 students). I know that they have to close students out of Linear Algebra and the bridging courses. The new Statistics concentration and the push toward more opportunities in Data Science will just increase that demand. The growth of the other sciences also adds to the demand on this department. So I’d add a position in each of Mathematics and Statistics [12]. At that point, we’d have four Statisticians, and I’d consider splitting the department [14].
  • Studio Art. Studio art courses regularly over-enroll. If I recall correctly, they had to add three or four sections of the intro course this semester and probably could have added a section of Drawing, too. Many of the 200-level courses have large waiting lists, particularly Digital Media or one of its variants. So one new position in Studio Art is an easy choice. But I also worry about the teaching load for my colleagues in Studio. Many of their courses meet six hours per week. That means that they are in class eighteen hours per week in their three-course semester. That’s too much. Most science faculty who teach six-hour-per-week courses earn 1.5 teaching credits for those courses. We should consider doing the same for Studio Art, at least at the 100 level. Covering that change requires another position [15].
  • Economics. Economics is usually the second-most popular major at the College. They are stretched thin. They need at least one other position, plus the restoration of the Sidney Meyer Chair.
  • Political Science. One of the most popular majors at the College [16] and one of the highest student to faculty ratios in the College, at least the last time I checked.
  • Religious Studies. Last year, Religious Studies lost a position [18]; I think it was the Asian Religious position. That position should be restored. Religious Studies also converted the Judaism position to another area about two decades ago. Some part of me would like to see a position in Judaism restored to the department, even though that represents an expansion.
  • Biology or Biological Chemistry. Two of the most popular popular majors. I know that the 300-level Bio classes regularly over-enroll. We could probably use yet another faculty member to support those majors. I’d prioritize this one less than most of the others I listed, but it’s still important.
  • Film and Media Studies. Grinnell lacks a program in Film and Media Studies. I know that there’s a strong push from a variety of faculty to add such a program, one focused more on the studio side of things. As much as I love film studies [19], I’m not sure that I’d pick that as the most central new area for the College. But I did start by saying that I’d consult with colleagues, and this is one area that seems to have a lot of support. Therefore, if we’re adding positions, we should add two in Film and Media.

These are just the first ones that come to mind; there are clearly a variety of other positions that are needed or that would improve the College [20]. Here’s the bigger issue … I’ve just identified seventeen or so additional faculty lines that would benefit the College. With a zero-sum tenure-line system, all of these positions are in conflict with each other [21] as well as with the preservation of existing lines in other departments.

I do not envy Council. They have an incredibly hard job in dealing with all of this. How do you balance supporting increased enrollments in departments, ensuring the continuation of core disciplines, and growing the curricular breadth? I’m not sure.

Are there departments that could get along with fewer faculty in this situation, even though it would be less than ideal? Almost certainly [22]. Does the structure of the academy provide an easy way to shift those lines? Nope. Nonetheless, tenure is essential. What should we do about it? I think you know my answer; grow the faculty, even if it’s only temporary [23].

Postscript: At yesterday’s faculty meeting, we heard about criteria for reaccreditation. Criterion 3C is The institution has the faculty and staff needed for effective, high-quality programs and student services. I’m not sure that we can really say that we do that with the caps on faculty. An institution of our calibre needs sufficient breadth of disciplinary knowledge to support the core liberal arts, enough faculty for majors in our popular majors, and room to grow into new knowledge areas. By putting these three goals in conflict with each other, we put all three at risk.

[1] My goal intent in writing this musing was not to rant. It was to consider what we might do if we had additional resources and what I see as high-need positions at the College. Nonetheless, because it’s about resources at Grinnell, parts of it clearly devolve into rant mode.

[2] The husk is the name some folks use for the Humanities and Social Studies Complex, or HSSC. I think it started as a way to pronounce HSSC. However, since it wraps around ARH and Carnegie, husk seems like a good name.

[3] That’s not quite accurate, as new faculty members also require offices, ancillary support, and other resources. On the other hand, new faculty members earn much less than named chairs, so it may all balance out in the end.

[4] When I made this comparison to another faculty member, they noted that there’s no reason that the College couldn’t do both.

[5] I would hope that our supposedly data-driven administration would have done a study about the effects of different ways of spending that much money, including not just the ideas of build a giant husk and expand the faculty an insanely large amount, but also other things. Of course, that would require a bit of outside the box thinking, and, well, you know the rest [6].

[6] I still recall the response to my question of You just designed a new $100-plus-million-dollar building that assumes that we have 1650 students. Now you’re thinking about changing the size of the student body. Don’t you think we should wait to break ground until after we decide to change the number of students on campus?

[7] Plus the eventual conversion of our Senior Lecturer position into a tenure-line position.

[8] I really do want to teach Tutorial again. I believe most of my colleagues do, too.

[9] The last time I checked, even if we expand by two tenure-line positions, we won’t be able to increase the number of sections of Tutorial we teach.

[10] It should be surprising that in this technological age we find that computer science has natural connections with a wide variety of other disciplines and endeavors.

[11] I have colleagues at other institutions that also have a zero-sum game policy for faculty. I’m always surprised that they don’t know what positions were lost when they gain a new position. I feel the pain of my colleagues who lost a position so that we could gain one. It’s one of the reasons I continue to advocate to the President and with Trustees that we expand the size of the faculty.

[12] Given demand, it may be that we need two new positions in Mathematics along with the one in Statistics. For now, let’s just say one and one.

[14] Hmmm …. Adding a position in Architecture would also put Art History at four faculty members. I might support splitting that department, too.

[15] No, I don’t know where we’d put the studio space for two new studio faculty. I also don’t know where we’d put lots of these other positions. That’s a separate issue.

[16] Political Science usually vies with Biology, Biological Chemistry, and Mathematics for the third most popular major [17].

[17] Here are the numbers I gathered from the College directory on the afternoon of 17 April 2018.

  • Class of 2020, majors with at least 20 majors
    1. Computer Science (44)
    2. Biology (43)
    3. Political Science (42)
    4. Biological Chemistry (41)
    5. Mathematics (31)
    6. Economics (31)
    7. Undeclared (25)
    8. English (22)
    9. Sociology (20)
  • All declared majors, majors with at least 75 majors
    1. Computer Science (143)
    2. Biology (126)
    3. Political Science (122)
    4. Economics (120)
    5. Biological Chemistry (103)
    6. Mathematics (92)
    7. Psychology (87)
    8. English (75)

It looks like Econ has dropped from its traditional high because of a particularly low showing in the class of 2020. (There are 46 majors in the class of 2018 and 42 in the class of 2019.) It also looks like Biology and Biological Chemistry have been continuing to grow. (Biology has 40 in the class of 2018 and 43 in the class of 2019. Biological Chemistry had 32 in the class of 2018 and 42 in the class of 2019.) I know that from my experience, we’ll see a lot of changes in CS as people start to add CS as a second major; I assume other departments also have similar experiences. So many of these departments will see a lot of growth in the coming year.

If you want comparatively easy access to these data and are on campus (or have a VPN connection to campus), I have quick links to the directory pages that give you the data at

[18] The calculus of this loss is a bit more complicated; Physics gained a position last year, but had lost one the previous year. So it may be that the net effect is that the Religious Studies position went to Computer Science or Biology.

[19] I took something like six different film studies classes as an undergraduate and graduate student; I also worked for the student film society, DOC Films, for most of my undergraduate career.

[20] I know that I’ll soon find myself feeling guilty that I forgot about a department or discipline that I really respect and that needs more support. I accept that my musings represent my thoughts on a particular day and time. I hope others accept that, too.

[21] Not quite. For example, the three positions in CS are not really in conflict with each other, nor are the two positions in Film and Media Studies.

[22] No, I will not tell you which ones I would identify. I will note, however, that I would not cut from Grinnell’s smaller departments.

[23] That may mean Council would have to put together a list of departments that might lose a position when it next comes up unless their enrollments change. That’s not a great thing to have to do, but it may be necessary.

Version 1.0 released 2018-04-16.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-04-16.