We Need More Professors

School can often feel like a treadmill: get up, drink coffee, write stuff down for yourself for a couple hours, write stuff down for your professor for a few hours, read a book or exercise, eat something, sleep and repeat. It’s easy to get lost, to think of the university as a machine that produces graduates. But college is a place and time with a rich concentration of opportunities for intellectual, social, academic and personal evolution. One of the most powerful experiences undergraduate students can have is researching or studying with a professor; the mentorship model of education is the oldest and most potent. The ability to study with an expert in your field is an unparalleled opportunity.

That opportunity is not a right but a privilege, and it can be abridged when university administration has other priorities. Montana State has grown rapidly in recent years. Between 2002 and 2014, the full-time undergraduate population increased 22 percent. Recent years have exhibited many visible changes: the renovation of Gaines Hall, construction of Jabs Hall, two new undergraduate housing complexes, a remodel of Miller and a food truck. During this same 12-year period, the amount of full-time faculty with terminal degrees in their respective field has dropped by 1.74 percent, though it has risen 5 percent since 2013. (I have used this qualification as an estimator of tenure-track or tenured (TT/T) faculty.) There must be enough professors conducting research for students to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.

The current ratio of students to instructional faculty at MSU is 20:1. According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the mean student-to-faculty ratio for universities of high research activity is 18:1. The only way to maintain this standard at MSU is to increase hiring of tenure-track faculty at rate proportional to that of other high-quality research universities. According to the chart “Growth at Northwestern Universities,” MSU presents strong student growth, but is an outlier with low faculty growth.

The MSU Faculty Senate took steps to address this issue in February 2015: the “Faculty Senate Prioritization Plan to meet MSU’s Strategic Goals” outlines what MSU must do to maintain and advance its status as a premier research university. Interestingly, this document does not focus on salaries, STEM bias or any of the other significant issues, but rather on the importance of tenured faculty to experience of undergraduates. The document states, “Faculty members are the ones who deliver quality education to MSU students. Maintaining quality programs takes significant faculty time and interaction and cannot be sustained without increasing tenure-track faculty proportional to enrollment.” The Senate advocates increasing the instructional component of MSU’s budget by reallocating non-instructional funds. The MSU Board of Regents recommends that the instructional component be near 50 percent, but it has been at or below 47 percent since 2011 (it is currently 48 percent for 2015). This may seem like splitting hairs to an undergraduate student, but this reallocation amounts to around $5.6 million, almost $360 more per student.

The Prioritization Plan integrates many related goals into a single mission, with stated objectives: assess and improve student learning of critical knowledge; increase graduates pursuing advanced degrees; elevate the research performance and recognition of MSU faculty; improve ranking among Carnegie Classified Research Universities; increase integration of learning; increase work across disciplines. The administration and senate must act to make such necessary changes if MSU is to continue providing comprehensive education.

Resolving these issues is complicated, but understanding them is not. If there isn’t enough faculty, teaching loads increase or some classes are offered less frequently. Most students are familiar with classes—in Art History, Chemistry and others — that are only offered every other year during alternating semesters, or only when there is enough demand; woe to anyone who isn’t on a perfect four-year plan. This affects graduate students as well; as teaching loads increase, tenured professors in labs can teach fewer graduate courses. The teaching loads are alleviated by filling in with adjunct professors, who primarily teach, and thus are not principal investigators and cannot provide undergraduate research opportunities, and are less able to be mentors. This is a national trend: Nearly 70 percent of faculty nationwide and 75 percent of new hires are non-tenure-track faculty, according to Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein who published The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers at Johns Hopkins University in 2006.  Rather than using adjuncts as a crutch, MSU should place a greater value on their skills and provide more tenure-track positions.

Endowing a new chair is, of course, quite expensive: new professors are given a startup package ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a lab and to cover moving expenses. MSU professors – like Drs. Trevor Douglas and Trevor Rainey, both in Chemistry –  have been drawn away by greener pastures at other universities that can afford grandeur startup packages.  

MSU must attract professors of national and international recognition, rather than create and then lose them. “MSU’s reputation punches much heavier than its weight,” says MSU Director of Communications Tracy Ellig, “Other institutions are constantly raiding us.” Montana State produces great professors, he says, but cannot compete financially with universities twice or more its size. “We have hired important research faculty, like Peter Buerhaus and Matt Byerly.” Dr. Buerhaus is a renowned nursing economist and Dr. Byerly is the director of the new Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery.

So what administration can do, and has done, is significant. By most measures, MSU is improving rapidly. Student retention rates are up 4.6 percent since 2009, the four-year graduation rate is up 2.7 percent, and the six-year graduation rate is up 4.1 percent. “There’s still a lot we can do,” said the Director of Planning and Analysis, Dr. Chris Fastnow, “and we have seen faculty step up – in math, economics, business – to help students meet the hurdles.” According to Dr. Fastnow, faculty-driven developments like flipped classrooms, increased tutoring opportunities, and the introduction of departmental student success coordinators have been matched by investment from the university and yield appreciable results.

The administration has a focus on ensuring students who begin studies actually graduate. The current graduation rate after four years is 23.5 percent (a number that does not include students who transfer away and graduate elsewhere). Institutions with more tenure-track faculty tend to have higher retention and graduation rates.

“Students who enter college with a clear purpose,” said Fastnow, “are going to finish. What we’re trying to do is identify what students don’t have a purpose, then giving them the advice and support they need to find that purpose.” One program the administration has introduced is called “Early Alert.” When professors notice a student who seems to be struggling, they can “alert” the department and then reach out to that student.

Such collaborative efforts between faculty and administration are driven by data and so far seem to be effective. “It takes quite a while to see if something you’ve done has worked,” said Tracy Ellig. “At least six years, and Cruzado has only been here six years. So we’re just now seeing what these new policies are doing.”

MSU is certainly on an upward swing, improving retention rates, graduation rates and research funding. All indicators seem to show that 2016 will be an even better year than 2015. But MSU certainly underperforms other Carnegie-rated research universities. Ellig continued, “We are constantly looking at new things we can do to increase those numbers.” These developments manifestly affect the experience of students and faculty; more could, perhaps, be done to address complaints.

Six years of new policies has certainly borne fruit, but now is the time to take greater steps forward. In 2013, the Montana legislature tied university funding to how much student retention and graduation rates move. “So we have an ethical directive as well as political and fiscal motivation,” said Ellig. “We have been making our investments in order to do the best we can for our students.” It is important for all in the MSU community – from undergraduates to administrators – to see the current data clearly. It is not a condemnation of current policies, nor a validation that the policies are perfect. The university must push forward, taking what has worked, cutting away what hasn’t, hiring new professors and attracting even better students, to ensure it can back up its punches.