Stats Staffing on Shaky Ground: Students Concerned over Program Future

Editor’s Note: The article has been updated on March 12, 2022.

Reed’s statistics program is currently facing serious staffing difficulties; neither of its tenure-track faculty is currently teaching at Reed, causing uncertainty about the program’s future and impacting the educations of numerous students. A three million dollar donation to the college is being used to fund a third tenure-track statistics position, but until permanent faculty can be secured the program will continue to face instability and the problems that come with it. 

Both of Reed’s tenure track Statisticians, Kelly McConville and Andrew Bray, are currently on leave. In their absence, four visiting professors are staffing the Mathematics department: Alex Quijano, Jonathan Wells, Hank Ibser, and Tom Allen. Quijano is leaving Reed for the University of Portland next semester, and Jonathan Wells is joining Grinnell College after serving Reed since 2019. The instability in the program, caused by the impermanent contracts of these visiting professors, has led to severe grievances amongst the student body.

Credits: Nina Gopaldas

To understand the difficulties faced by students, the Quest reached out to Robin Hardwick ‘23 and Maxwell VanLandschoot ’22. Both of them have been actively engaged with students both as teaching assistants and advocates for a broader statistics program at Reed. Hardwick, who is currently enrolled in Statistics Practicum, a 300-level course that is meant to be a capstone of the program, holds strong frustrations regarding the limitations of the class. “We received a syllabus roughly four weeks after the classes began . . . when we did [receive a syllabus] it didn’t even contain the full list of readings,” stated Hardwick. Due to these and several other shortcomings in such a crucial class, “At least four students dropped out,” Hardwick revealed. A current senior who wishes to remain anonymous also intended to take the course but ended up not taking it. They said, “. . . besides me, at least six others I know did not take it [the statistics practicum] because we knew the class will simply not be satisfactory.”

Last semester, both Hardwick and VanLandschoot served as teaching assistants to Introduction to Probability and Statistics, a course that is a prerequisite to many STEM disciplines and attracts students from fields like Economics, Political Science, and Sociology. They both agreed that the distribution of the course’s contents and its structure undermined the learning experience of the students, “. . . the structure of the exams, homework assignments, and the overall learning outcome of the course will act as a serious burden to students who wish to take upper-level statistics courses in future.” 

The Quest reached out to Angélica Osorno, the Chair of the Mathematics Department, to discuss the conditions surrounding students’ grievances and how they are planning to address the situation. Osorno acknowledged how problems with the program affect students, “… the current juniors don’t know who they’ll be thesising with, current sophomores don’t know who’s going to be here next year, so there’s a lot of uncertainty.” However, she joyously mentioned that to address the growing demand for Statistics, Reed has allocated a three-million-dollar donation for the creation of a new tenure track position for statistics. “There has been a recent donation to the college, and then the college decided that statistics was the program that really needed it.” 

She further added that “From the vantage point of the Math Department, we are committed to supporting the statistics program in whatever way we can, and for now, unfortunately, we are looking at this as a couple of years of instability until we start having more permanent people.” According to Osorno, Reed will search for a new statistics professor in Fall 2022. To clarify why the search hasn’t begun yet, she mentioned, “To have the best shot at the best person for the position, this [the search] has to be in the Fall.”

As Reed’s present visiting statistics professors depart, the mathematics department will be hiring two to three visiting professors next year, depending on the decisions of Bray and McConville.  Under these circumstances, students who are required to take statistics classes for group or major requirements will face challenges in the coming years. 

When asked about Reed’s tenure track positions, Osorno did not have exact awareness on whether Kelly McConville and Andrew Bray are coming back to Reed, “Kelly is expected to let us know by the fall; Andrew will inform us in a week.” (At the time of publication, Bray had not given Osorno an answer). McConville, who’s currently teaching at Harvard as a senior lecturer, went on sabbatical in the Spring last year, and Bray has been on leave since 2020 and is presently teaching at UC Berkeley.

Regarding the current uncertainty over the status of Reed’s tenured statistics professors, Osorno mentioned, with due caution, that “Their [McConville’s and Bray’s] reasons are not necessarily financial, but we can’t just pretend that it doesn’t play a role.” She added that due to the high demand for academic statisticians in the industry and around the country, it can be hard to hire and retain qualified statisticians at Reed’s flat salary scale.

According to 2019 Survey of Doctorate Recipients data, the average median salary of a Statistics Ph.D. recipient, when pursuing a job in the industry, is around $140,000, whereas the salary of an assistant professor at Reed begins at $70,280, according to pay scale published on the 2021-22 faculty handbook.

Osorno believes, to address this, Reed needs to consider offering higher salaries to its statistics faculties. But given the limitation of resources, reallocation of tenure track lines has been recognized as a viable strategy, as discussed in the most recent faculty meeting. A few departments at Reed, such as computer science, are understaffed and need immediate staffing. Given the limitation of funds necessary to create and sustain those positions, reallocation of tenure tracks between departments can be a useful, albeit controversial, method. Osorno believes that while it is crucial to reallocate resources into areas of high demand, “It’s hard to determine which departments are overstaffed” since enrollment numbers aren’t the best indicator of a department’s needs. 

For now, the fate of the Statistics program and the students who are passionate about statistics remains uncertain. The Math Department is actively working on assessing the situation and taking adequate measures. However, for students like Robin Hardwick and Maxwell VanLandschoot, who want to pursue courses in Statistics, it remains to be seen whether Reed responds to their academic aspirations and stabilizes its statistics program.

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