Growing Pains or Growing Gains: University growth leading to faculty shortage

Thursday, February 7, 2013

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Juan classroom photo

As MSU’s student population grows on its way to over 16,000 by the year 2019, more and more students are unable to gain spots in important classes.

However, according to Tom Hughes, professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience (CBN), the issue is not about classroom space, but an inadequate number of faculty.

“We have the facilities, but we don’t have the faculty,” Hughes said, sitting in his office in the recently renovated Cooley Lab. He cites the fact that there are 50 CBN majors for every CBN research lab on campus, and the number of research labs depends on the number of qualified faculty.

Sue Monahan, Associate Dean of Letters and Science, echoed the same concerns, saying faculty are the most needed resource on campus. She said a group of over one-hundred faculty, which met off campus on Jan. 15, almost unanimously expressed concern over faculty numbers.

But, according to Provost Martha Potvin and Associate Provost David Singel, new faculty are actively being hired. The Office of the Provost allocated $6 million to hire new professors, and 25 faculty were hired last spring — all “new lines,” which means they are not replacements for retired or departing professors, according to Singel.

Though Hughes’s department is more stretched for faculty than others, Potvin said a Deans’ Council makes for a fair process of creating new faculty lines. Department heads create new faculty proposals to give the deans, the deans rank the proposals according to need, and the proposals and rankings are then presented to the Deans’ Council.

Hughes, on the other hand, said department heads are not happy with the current situation. “If you go talk to them, they will say we’re barely staying above water,” he said. One problem, he explained, is that it takes three years after the search begins for a new professor to become “up to speed” and ready to teach.

As the student body grows over the next few years, Monahan said, it will take significantly more hires to maintain the “quality education” MSU provides. This is not in line with the current trend: From 2005-2010, full-time equivalent faculty increased by 2.4 percent, but there was an 8.5 percent increase in credit hours taken by students, according to data released by the Office of Planning and Analysis

However, the administration is looking at alternative ways to tackle the demand for more faculty.

One solution, according to Singel, is to improve pass rates for “gateway courses” so less sections, and therefore less faculty, are necessary. This is precisely what the new Technology-Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) classrooms aim to do. One was installed early this semester in Gaines Hall, while another is currently being installed in Wilson Hall.

Student success rates have “doubled” at other universities where TEAL classrooms were implemented, Singel said. These classrooms use circular tables and technology to encourage “active learning” where students solve problems collaboratively, and the professor facilitates this process.

While Singel said the TEAL classrooms would be “exhilarating” for faculty, Monahan does not believe they will solve the growth problem. However, she agreed they will be a good investment for the university.

The administration is also looking to expand online classes, which allow professors to teach more students than they could in a traditional class.

“I’ve been at an institution [University of North Dakota] where students thought online classes were actually better,” Potvin said.

Though Singel is optimistic about the future of online learning, he recognizes the need to accommodate different learning styles. “Nobody will try to shoehorn someone into a learning style that’s not good for them,” Singel explained. “We’d never have a degree that’s purely online.”

As for current online classes, Potvin said feedback from students has been “mixed.”

Despite these administrative efforts, Monahan said, the university lacks a specific plan to find faculty resources needed to accommodate the increasing enrollment. Hughes expressed similar concerns.

“If you don’t have a plan,” he said, “you’re going to degrade the experience [of an MSU education].”

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