If the Ratio Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Is an eight-to-one student-faculty ratio one to be cherished or seen as a luxury few colleges can afford? Debate at Whitman illustrates the tensions.

April 20, 2017
 
Whitman College

Professors at Whitman College know they have it better than most. Enrollments are steady. A capital campaign that exceeded its $150 million goal is now complete. The sabbatical policy is generous and the student-faculty ratio is low -- so low, in fact, that the administration wants to shift it from approximately eight to one to 10 to one over the next five years through faculty attrition in departments with the fewest majors, among other factors, according to faculty accounts. And there’s the rub.

“There’s cognitive dissonance between the college having this successful campaign and a lot of new buildings and infrastructure going up on campus, and then being told at the same time that the student-faculty ratio is too low,” said Matt Reynolds, an associate professor of art history and visual culture studies, “and it’s going to go back to 10 to one through these austerity measures.”

For faculty members at many colleges and universities, one full-time, tenure-track faculty member for every eight students will seem blessedly low. And, to clarify, professors at Whitman generally agree that there’s room to raise the ratio eventually. The college’s historical ratio is 10 to one, after all, but it shrank in recent years with a surge in faculty hires. Those stem from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to fill slots for professors, who can go on sabbatical every fifth semester, and an “academic strength” portion of the fund-raising campaign that created 16 new professorships and made permanent an additional 13 temporary or visiting positions.

Objections relate mainly to the way Whitman has decided to increase the ratio -- by not filling departing faculty appointments in programs with the lowest numbers of majors and other metrics, faculty members say. The college says no particular programs are being targeted but that a 10-to-one ratio will put it more in line with peer institutions. So perhaps the biggest dissonance on campus of late is that between what at least appears to be quantitative approach to academic staffing and a deeply qualitative academic culture.

Reynolds, for example, tells many of his advisees, “It doesn’t matter what you major in here at Whitman -- you’re here to get a liberal arts education that’s balanced and broad and gives you perspective on the world.” He added, “I’ve really believed and embraced that, and it’s led to instances of us not recruiting students [as majors] because we felt like we were making a difference in the curriculum through our classes.”

Indeed, Reynolds’s department plays a big role in the college’s general education program, and lower-level courses tend to fill up fast, he said. But the service-department mission -- with its emphasis on students taught, not majors -- seems to be backfiring. The department was just told that it will not be able to hire a replacement professor for a retiring colleague. The department will have three art historians now and no expert in European art.

Classics is another department affected by metric-based decision making. Dana Burgess, Charles E. and Margery B. Anderson Endowed Professor of Humanities and Professor of Classics, said his department offers both ancient language and classical civilization courses, with greater enrollments in the latter due to their all-English materials.

Because of that “complicated” metric profile, the department worries that it will only be able to offer classical civilization courses after positions are eliminated, Burgess said. Yet, he added, “I believe that language learning has real value, and that learning dead languages is especially intellectually valuable,” since students focus much more on language structure than they do in modern, spoken languages.

Lack of ancient language instruction would also leave classical civilization courses “shallower than they should be,” Burgess said.

Like Reynolds, Burgess said decisions about how the college will up its ratio have taken place at the Board of Trustees level with insufficient input from faculty members.

The changes are concentrated thus far in the humanities -- a major theme of a popular op-ed Reynolds recently published in the campus newspaper. But some in math and the sciences also have expressed concern about process and the impact of the cuts on the institution as a whole.

Marion Götz, chair of chemistry, said her department won’t be targeted but that she’s nevertheless “worried about the stringent timeline for removing [full-time faculty lines].” As a result of the reduction of such positions, she said, “our curriculum for majors and distribution courses is being altered without the input from the faculty as a whole.”

Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn, Baker Ferguson Professor of Politics and Leadership and Whitman’s former provost and dean of the faculty, said there were numerous reasons for the upsurge in faculty positions in recent years, not least of all the success of the capital campaign. And at a small college such as his, he said, even relatively small fluctuations in faculty size will have a big impact if enrollments stay the same.

As to the current debate, Kaufman-Osborn said that he understood how some might conclude that the current student-faculty ratio is unsustainable. However, he said via email, “if the principle of shared governance is to be respected, it is crucial that the faculty and its elected representatives be vitally involved in determining where specific cutbacks are to be made.”

Moreover, he added, if Whitman wants to “retain its identity as a liberal arts college, any reductions in instructional staff must not be determined exclusively through reference to enrollments in specific disciplines.”

Why? Providing students with the education they’ve been promised means maintaining “a robust curriculum that acknowledges the centrality of the humanities, as well as the social and natural sciences,” he said.

Gina Ohnstad, college spokesperson, said via email that as the college continues the best way to use its resources, “we believe the money that we could spend to maintain an eight-to-one ratio could be better used in other ways in order to have the greatest impact on the student academic experience.”

Ohnstad confirmed the five-year timeline, saying it was set by the board “in consultation with college leadership.” Yet she cautioned it was tentative and said that just as the ratio had taken several years to reach eight to one, it will take time to reach 10 to one. That figure more closely aligns with peer institutions, she said.

Felician College cited a similar goal when it laid off more than a dozen longtime faculty members in 2014, eventually earning it censure from the American Association of University Professors. It said at the time that it had been struggling with enrollments, which Whitman is not. At the same time, other institutions with unusually low student-faculty ratios, such as embattled Sweet Briar College (as low as five to one), show what can go wrong when these figures aren’t aligned with financial plans.

For reference, Whitman’s endowment is approximately $500 million. That’s healthy but significantly smaller than endowments of some other liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on low instructional ratios, such as Swarthmore College ($1.8 billion) or Williams College ($2.3 billion).

Regarding shared governance, Ohnstad pushed back on faculty accounts, saying that the ratio issue has been a topic of campus conversations for several years. President Kathy Murray, who assumed that role in 2015, held an open forum with faculty members last spring to discuss it, get feedback and hear concerns, for example, the spokesperson said. Murray’s also discussed student-faculty ratios at a number of post-board meeting information sessions, she added, and the new provost also has engaged department and division chairs.

“Every time we evaluate whether or not to fill a specific tenure-track position, the provost keeps faculty informed throughout the decision process,” Ohnstad said, pushing back on faculty accounts once again by saying that no specific department is being targeted. “This is in contrast to our previous practice where departments would put in requests and not learn of the outcome until a final decision. Whitman is very proud of its model of shared governance, and we take faculty input on these topics very seriously.”

Ohnstad described Whitman’s longstanding evaluative process for filling faculty lines as consisting of five criteria: student demand for majors and courses, how a position serves the mission of the college, if not filling a position would end an academic program, if not filling the position would mean the demise of a specialty in a program, and how the position affects other departments and programs.

That’s somewhat similar to an academic prioritization process used by a number of colleges and universities in recent years to assess the viability of academic programs (though no actual programs at Whitman are at risk, just faculty lines). But professors say no one’s used that terminology on campus as of yet.

One of the college’s fund-raising goals was to “broaden and deepen the curriculum through strategic additions to the faculty.” Reynolds said he worried some of that -- including important contributions to diversity -- would be undone by the full-time faculty cuts.

More than anything, he wants to help Whitman stay Whitman.

“I have loved my job since I got here, which is why I feel like I’m fighting hard for us to take a long look at this,” ​he said.

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