Letter to the Editor: SCAPP Letter to the Student Body

Liberal Arts at Reed

On March 15, 2021, the Committee on Academic Planning and Policy introduced the set of criteria which they would be using to evaluate tenure track requests this Spring to the rest of the faculty body. The announcement was followed by a flurry of questions and concerns regarding the implications of these criteria, a discussion that lasted for the remainder of the faculty meeting. A special faculty meeting was then held on April 5th as an opportunity for the entire faculty body to discuss the implications of these criteria, both positive and negative, on various academic departments as well as the academic program at large. What are these new criteria? How do they impact various departments and student experiencience in those departments? 

Earlier this year, CAPP was informed that due to budgetary constraints that have plagued the college in recent years but have worsened due the pandemic, there will only be a limited number of tenure track positions allocated this Spring. Tenure track positions are new faculty positions departments can request in anticipation of a retirement or leave, to expand the scope of their academic program or, more recently, to alleviate over enrollment pressures. The contract of a  tenure track position (typically six years) lasts longer than a visiting position and makes the candidate eligible for the possibility of earning tenure at Reed. These positions can thus have a significant impact on both the medium and long term trajectory of departments and the academic program. In order to begin the process of hiring a tenure track professor, departments have to first submit a request to CAPP that in turn, provides recommendations to the President regarding what positions to authorize searches for. As recently as a couple of years ago, the unspoken agreement was that CAPP would approve all tenure track search requests to replace leaves or retirements in a department. However, budgetary constraints have now made it necessary for CAPP to rank the incoming requests such that only a limited number of the requests will get filled. Additionally, growing enrollment pressures in some departments have prompted departments to request new tenure track positions. Under these circumstances, CAPP spent the greater part of the last month discussing and codifying the criteria they will be using to make these decisions. CAPP maintains that while similar criteria were used in making these decisions in Spring 2020, their memo this semester is an attempt to formalize and codify the criteria to make their ranking process as transparent as possible.

The criteria released by CAPP [in a memo released to faculty on March 8] read as follows:

“Beginning this spring, CAPP expects to consider the following criteria in evaluating and ranking search requests:

1) Number of Students taught per Faculty FTE. (CAPP will use the most recent data available and look at 4- and 10-year averages for longer-term patterns.)

2) Number of Theses advised per Faculty FTE. (CAPP will use the most recent data available and look at 4- and 10-year averages for longer-term patterns.)

3) Contribution to the overall academic program of the college. Departments should respond to this point by addressing questions such as, but not limited to, the following: does the department reach an unusually high number of students beyond their majors? How does the department currently contribute to interdisciplinary courses and/or interdisciplinary programs/majors? Does the department offer programming that serves the greater Reed community?”

So what are the repercussions of these criteria and how do they influence the future of the academic program at Reed? The reliance on the quantitative measures listed under criteria one and two have proved to be a cause of great concern for many faculty members across campus. 

First, there are concerns that these figures do not fully encompass the true workload undertaken in a particular department. For instance, interdisciplinary theses are counted under a single department which means that one department would not get any credit for their participation in an interdisciplinary thesis despite having advised the thesis. Additionally, the workload of certain departments (especially in the performing arts) is not captured by the number of students in those courses as the number of hours each faculty member works with individual students to maintain good pedagogy is often much greater than what is required in other departments. Faculty participation in academic programs such as Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) or Environmental Science is also not accounted for in these statistics. 

Second, there are concerns that the reliance on these numbers would mean that small departments that do not have high enrollment, such as many of the language programs, would not be given replacements for retiring faculty members and in effect, these departments would get cut to dangerously low numbers. Faculty from these departments maintain that it is nigh impossible to run a successful major program with fewer than 3 full time faculty members and that cutting these departments to fewer than three faculty (even if it is just for a year or two) would effectively be spelling doom for these departments. The language departments are further concerned by the use of quantitative measures as they believe that new distribution criteria introduced in 2019 have disincentivized students from language classes and that this has had a negative impact on their enrollments.

Finally, given that some of the highest enrollment pressures (both at Reed and nationally) are seen in STEM departments, there are concerns that a reliance on numbers will lead to increasing the size of these departments at the expense of other departments and might drastically change Reed’s mission of providing a holistic liberal arts education. Given that tenure track positions have long term consequences on the structure of the academic program, some believe that using tenure track positions as the primary tool to alleviate over enrollment pressures is short sighted. Instead, they advocate for those pressures to be addressed using a combination of tenure track positions and Over Extension (OE) positions (which are essentially visiting positions).

While the faculty members on CAPP are sympathetic to these issues, they believe that inclusion of criterion three, a solely qualitative criterion, will help correct for some of these issues. Many faculty members however, remain skeptical of the effectiveness of criterion three as CAPP minutes reveal that they voted to keep criterion three in its place rather than make it the first criterion suggesting that these criteria are weighted based on the order they appear in. The original CAPP memo to the faculty reads “If a department is below the 50th percentile in both [criteria (1) and (2)] and cannot make a compelling case with respect to (3), it is unlikely that CAPP will recommend a search.”

On the flip side of this coin are departments who face chronic over enrollment pressures and see these criteria as a way to make the tenure track search request process less rigid and to ease the mental and pedagogical toll that teaching overenrolled classes has on students and faculty alike. For them, over enrollment in these departments is not a short term issue but one that they expect to persist into the foreseeable future. Additionally, attracting visiting professors in certain STEM fields is becoming more and more challenging due to the other job opportunities available to these candidates.  Faculty members in these fields also talk about how running a search for visiting professors year after year while balancing overenrolled classes, multiple senior theses, and their own research is entirely unsustainable and exhausting. Beyond the wellbeing of these individual faculty members, this work environment has far reaching consequences on the academic program itself as these departments often see high turnover or risk losing strong professors as they feel unsupported and overworked in this environment. For these departments, tenure track positions are a way to attract a broader array of candidates and to help reduce the pressure that faculty and students face in these departments.

When a number of computer science students came to Student-CAPP to discuss these new criteria, similar thoughts were raised. A junior computer science major told us, “In part, a liberal arts education for me means being able to pursue a computer science degree where I am able to enjoy the same faculty to student ratios that my peers in other departments were able to access.” The group of students told SCAPP about how their faculty members were sometimes unable to spend more than a couple of minutes with any individual student due to their workloads and how this severely detracted from their learning experience. They told SCAPP that this was not only true for office hours or regular advising, but also for thesis advising where their advisors were often unable to spend more than 20 minutes to discuss a student’s thesis with them. They also raised the issue of how this environment had a negative impact on diversity within their department despite the efforts of the professors, as students from diverse backgrounds do not find the necessary support and faculty candidates from diverse backgrounds do not have the incentive to commit to Reed.

For this semester, the CAPP will use the above mentioned criteria to decide which departments will get their tenure track searches authorized. There are twelve search requests but only six or seven positions up for grab. The codification and ranking of these tenure track search request criteria however, have unearthed a number of questions about what the liberal arts mean at Reed and how the institution should allocate its resources in pursuit of this mission. Should the institute prioritize delivering 1:10 student to faculty ratios in all departments or should it instead ensure a broad and interdisciplinary curriculum? While the solutions to these issues are not necessarily binary, they will require the creation of new ideals of what liberal arts at Reed should look like in the near future.  The most important voices in this re/imagination project, however, need to be those of the students. SCAPP invites students to have these conversations amongst your peers and with professors and staff at all levels of the institution so that the needs, ambitions and hopes of current and future students are embodied by the college as we make decisions regarding the future of Reed. If you are interested in voicing your thoughts and representing your peers more directly, we call on you to apply for SCAPP (application in SB info) for the coming academic year!  

Feel free to reach out to Aditya Gadkari (adgadkari@reed.edu) and Tabia Schmidt (schmidtt@reed.edu) if you have any questions about SCAPP or any details mentioned in the article.

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