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New faculty lines (#1166)

Topics/tags: Grinnell

One of the many questions that new faculty and staff at Grinnell sometimes ask me [1] is What are problems at Grinnell? One of my answers may surprise you.

Our endowment can be a problem.

Now, that’s not my whole answer. It’s just part. For those who don’t know, Grinnell has what we will call a generous endowment [2]. I’m not sure where it stands, particularly since some endowments rose over 50% last year [3], but $2 billion is probably in the ballpark. With about 1650 students, we have more than $1 million endowment per student.

There are many great things about the endowment. Among other things, it means that we can be a truly need-blind school. That is, we can accept domestic students without paying attention to their ability to pay, and we can meet the full demonstrated financial need of those students [4].

So why do I say it’s a problem? Because when you have that much money as an institution, it’s often hard for faculty, staff, and students to accept that We don’t have money for whatever great idea or necessary thing the faculty, staff, or students have identified. But if we funded everything everyone wanted at Grinnell, we wouldn’t have nearly as much of an endowment anymore. Unfortunately, many people become a bit resentful when their pet project isn’t funded. I spent many years frustrated that we couldn’t hire someone to run our peer mentoring program, even though our external review clearly indicated the need for that position and we provided good arguments and data for the position.

What does that have to do with new faculty lines, the title of this musing?

Well, for most of President Kington’s time at Grinnell, he insisted that the number of tenure-line positions stay fixed. And that creates what is typically called a zero-sum game. For one department to get a new position, another department might lose a position. Now, we’re told not to think of it like that. But when Department A has a faculty member retire and is told Nope, you can’t replace them and they see Department B gain a position, it’s hard for them not to think of Department B as taking their position [5]. Many of us begged President Kington to allow expansions to allow us to meet student demand without compromising core areas. He refused.

We now have a new president. And President Harris has convinced the Trustees that we need more faculty lines. She has phrased it as a kind of deferred maintenance of the academic program. I believed she identified two primary kinds of maintenance. New lines allow us to better meet demand in areas with high student interest, many of which have relied on term faculty. New lines also allow us to expand the curriculum. President Harris has suggested Black / African Diaspora studies as one likely possibility. President Harris has also suggested that some of the lines may be used for new ideas that we have not yet identified.

All in all, we’ll be adding about ten lines.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

It is.

But, like our endowment, it will likely create conflicts and resentment. Why? Let’s look at the positions that we need.

But first, I should mention another kind of deferred maintenance: We’ve started a variety of new programs without fully staffing them. We need to staff those programs, too. And there’s also the issue of restoring the faculty lines that were shifted under the prior administration [6].

I will admit that I don’t know everything that’s happening on campus. Communication was odd during the pandemic. And I’ve intentionally stepped back from things this year. But I can still identify a bunch. I apologize to those I have missed. In no particular order …

1–3 positions in Studio Art, which, even after staffing multiple sections of its popular introductory courses with visitors each year, still has to close many students out of them. I also expect that once Studio Art can offer more intro sections, they will see more majors, which will require more upper-level classes. And then there’s the issue of workload in Studio Art. I don’t think a faculty member should have to teach three six-hour classes per week. Studio deserves a two-two teaching load. Let’s take care of our faculty! Of course, that might require one more position.

3–4 positions in Black / African Diaspora Studies. If we’re committing to this area, and it sounds like we are, we need to be sure that it is appropriately staffed.

1–2 positions in Statistics. Statistics has been using two visitors for many years. Students deserve tenure-line faculty. And I expect if we add those faculty, we’ll also end up with a separate Statistics department.

1–2 positions in Dance. We have one tenure-line dance faculty member. One. She’s spectacular. But to have a real program in Dance, we need at least two.

1–2 positions in Mathematics. Like Statistics, Math has been relying on visitors for years. Math also deserves the opportunity to make its large introductory courses a more reasonable size.

1–2 positions in Media Studies. We’ve committed to a Media Studies concentration, going so far as to identify a building downtown for it. We have one wonderful faculty member. We need more.

1–2 positions in Linguistics. Linguistics is a popular area at Grinnell. We’ve relied on shared teaching of the intro course and some other courses. But some folks who teach it have retired, and others have indicated that they are less interested in teaching it these days. In any case, it’s popular enough that it deserves more staffing.

1–2 positions in Computer Science. Yeah, that’s my department. We are currently the largest department in terms of the number of majors and have been for the past four or so years. We are not even in the top five in terms of the number of regular FTE faculty [7]. Two years ago, we were approved to go to eight regular FTE faculty. We’re currently at six. We’re hiring one this year [8] and expect approval to hire another next year [9]. But eight faculty is not enough to support 120 majors [10]. We can barely offer the curriculum for this many majors with nine. Ten is more appropriate, particularly when you consider issues like advising load.

1 position in Theatre (Literature). Remember when I mentioned the positions that departments lost? Theatrical literature was one of them. But that area offers so many possible connections. I’d love to see us restore that.

2 positions in Language. Yeah, I realize that it’s not fair to group those together. However, while I believe that we’ve lost at least two positions in the languages over the past few years, I’m not sure what they are. And it may be that it’s worth shuffling those among the languages. In any case, we need to consider restoring these.

1–2 positions in Biology. Bio hires between two and four visitors each year. I don’t know how many of those are leave replacements, but it strikes me that that’s a lot of hiring to do, and reducing that burden is appropriate.

1 position in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. I’m not sure where GWSS stands on staffing. But I know that they’ve relied on visitors for many years and that they are popular.

That list doesn’t consider nascent areas (e.g., Disability Studies, Middle East Studies, Neurohumanities), long-standing concentrations that could likely use more staffing (e.g., Environmental Studies), other areas President Harris mentioned (e.g., Jewish Studies), the new areas that folks are likely considering already, and so on and so forth.

Even without all of that, I’ve identified fifteen to twenty-five lines of deferred maintenance. It looks like a lot of people are going to have their hopes or expectations dashed. I do not envy my colleagues on Council who are going to have to make these decisions.

Postscript: And then there’s the issue of providing office space for all of these faculty. I’ll discuss my earlier arguments about those issues at another time [11].

[1] And probably ask others.

[2] Thank you, Joe!

[3] For example, Washington University, St. Louis, saw its endowment go up by 65%.

[4] What the government thinks they need and what they really need may differ. Significantly.

[5] As someone who was sometimes in the Department B role, I’ll say I felt horrible in such situations.

[6] Do all of those have to be restored? I don’t know. It requires discussion. I’m not even sure I know all of them.

[7] I don’t know that for a fact. There is no available list of the number of regular FTE faculty assigned to each department.

[8] Fingers crossed that the search goes well.

[9] Fingers and toes crossed.

[10] Plus another twenty-four or so Tutorial advisees.

[11] Perhaps not. Remember, I’m trying to be less curmudgeonly and to care less [12].

[12] Yes, caring makes me curmudgeonly.

Version 1.0 released 2021-09-27.

Version 1.1.2 of 2021-09-27.