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Sociology departments haven’t really grown over the last decade, but they haven’t shrunk, either, according to a new department-level survey from the American Sociological Association.

“We’re doing relatively well,” said Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of research and development for the ASA. “We aren’t doing as well as we would like to be, but we’re doing relatively well compared to other disciplines,” such as physics and foreign languages, which have seen widespread closures in recent years.

Average department size at research institutions fell slightly, from about 17 professors to 16, in 2001-2 and 2011-12, respectively. Doctoral institution tenure-line faculty numbers declined slightly (less than one position), to nine professors. Master’s degree-granting institutions held steady in both years at about six professors and there was slight growth in departments at baccalaureate degree-granting institutions -- by half a position -- to about four professors in 2011-12.

A possible reason for those changes, the report says, is cuts in state budgets for public research and doctoral institutions, and the closing of some smaller, baccalaureate and doctoral institutions that were “no longer economically viable,” and the closing or merging of standalone programs.

One noticeable finding is that bigger sociology departments actually have decreased their employment of adjunct faculty, bucking a long-term, national trend toward hiring more adjuncts across disciplines. That probably accounts for the fact that tenure-line faculty workloads at those kinds of institutions have gone up, Spalter-Roth said. She called the latter trend “problematic.”

Average Tenure-Line Professor Course Load
Type of Institution 2001-2 2011-12
Research 4.2 4.4
Doctoral 5.2 6.1
Master's 6.9 6.5
Baccalaureate 7.0 6.5

“They’re teaching more or have more students, and that’s how it is,” Spalter-Roth said of tenure-line faculty. “That’s the outcome of the recession, the holding back of state funding.”  Students in previous ASA surveys have reported that tenure-line faculty have been important resources in their job searches, she said, and that could leave tenure-line faculty with less time to perform that important task.

The average number of adjunct faculty members who were not graduate students at research and doctoral institutions declined from 2001-2002 to 2011-12, from about five to four at both kind of institutions. At master’s-degree-granting institutions, adjunct employment went up slightly, from about four positions to 4.6 positions, while the growth in adjunct positions was greater at baccalaureate-level institutions: from about two positions to nearly four.

In a related trend, tenure-line faculty annual workloads increased slightly at research and doctoral institutions during the same period, from 4.2 courses to 4.4 courses; and 5.2 to 6.1 courses, respectively. In addition to decreased state funding, Spalter-Roth attributed that trend to the rise of external assessments in public institutions in the last decade. Wanting to boost their performance, some institutions have responded by assigning more introductory courses to senior faculty, she said. Graduate students also may be teaching more courses in some cases.

Increased employment of adjuncts presumably helped decrease the tenure-line faculty workloads at master’s and baccalaureate institutions during that period, from 6.9 to 6.5 courses, and from seven to 6.5 courses a year, respectively.

Over all, tenure-line sociology professors saw their professor-to-student ratios increase, from about 11 to 12 majors per professor, between 2001-2 and 2011-12. There was a slight decline in the number of departments graduating at least one major over the same period, however.

There also was a slight “graying” of the faculty, the survey notes, with the most growth in the associate professor ranks. In 2001-2, departments had, on average: three full professors; two associate professors, and two assistant professors. In 2011-12, they had: 3.7 full professors, three associate professors; and 2.6 assistant professors. The study calls the distribution pattern an "inverted triangle," with more full professors than assistant professors.

Some 645 department chairs responded to the survey for the 2011-12 data set, compared to 616 institutions in 2001-2.

Spalter-Roth said the data was mostly for internal use to report on the data-driven profession, but would also be available to individual departments to report back to their institutions. The association usually surveys departments on different matters every five years, she said.

John Curtis, director of research and policy for the American Association of University professors, said via email that the results would be difficult to compare to other disciplines, as there’s no national database for such data. And while individual disciplinary associations may collect their own data on the profession, it’s not necessarily the same data over the same time period.

Spalter-Roth said she was already looking forward to the next survey a decade from now and guessed it would look much different, due to the current pace of change in academe. "People do use these data, and it's important for us to collect them, as [they do] provide some measure of the impact of major transformations happening within higher education," she said.

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