The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News September 8, 2006

More Faculty Cuts Approved

Last semester closed with the student body still in suspense over which faculty positions would be eliminated from the College curriculum, in compliance with the Strategic Plan’s stipulation to cut seven positions by 2010. Since then, positions have been cut from sociology, religion and mathematics. A fourth position has been “frozen” in the economics department, essentially tabled for further deliberation.

The Review spoke with the chairs of the departments in question and all agreed that the loss would leave major gaps in the curriculum.

In the sociology department, the dropped position is one recently vacated by James Walsh, who taught the sociology of law as well as classes in deviance and criminology.

Chair of Sociology Daphne John said, “We feel we made a strong argument especially considering the high enrollment [in those classes] and wish [College Faculty] Council had acted differently, but we’re trying to move forward. We’re over it.”

To that end, the sociology department is trying to ameliorate the effects of the cut with the resources it has. Professor Bill Norris is currently on leave and one idea is to fill his gap with someone who combines his specialization of sexualities and comparative sociology with the types of classes Walsh taught.

“We are still firmly committed to having sociology of law, deviance and criminology in our curriculum,” said John, laying out her bottom line.          “We think it’s a focal point of the discipline.”

The religion department’s loss was in the area of medieval religion in the West, left vacant by the recently retired Grover Zinn.

“This means that we’ve lost our coverage of the Christian tradition from the third century to the 17th century,” said David Kamitsuka, chair of the department. “We have biblical studies and modern but nothing in the middle.”

Kamitsuka also noted that this will have a “significant, substantial” effect on the department’s ability to offer first-year seminars.

“It creates a gaping hole for us,” he said. He then added, “I’m not second-guessing council who has had to make comparative judgments regarding positions to cut.”

The position eliminated from the mathematics department was in the general area of applied mathematics, the spot previously filled by Peter Thomas, a specialist in mathematical biology. Department chair Professor Jim Walsh said that this elimination will have a substantial effect on both majors and non-majors.

“The loss of this position is most unfortunate in that the percentage of our majors interested in applied mathematics has risen significantly in recent years,” said Walsh. “In addition, many students will likely have difficulty satisfying the Quantitative Proficiency requirement as our commitment to this requirement is no longer supported by the administration.”

Walsh conjectured that the amount of non-majors taking classes may have skewed analysis of the faculty-to-major ratio, possibly influencing the council’s decision. He also noted that this will reduce the program’s ability to do interdisciplinary work with natural sciences. One of the goals of the Strategic Plan is to enhance interdisciplinary cooperation.

The economics department has not yet lost a position but with its “frozen” status, the position that will be left empty by James Zinser when he retires at the end of the academic year can neither be eliminated nor refilled. His courses are on economic development, law and economics, anti-trust and industrial organization. He also taught popular sections of Principles of Economics. Chair of Economics Luis Fernandez said the loss would have adverse repercussions.

“The loss of the development courses would have a big effect on students who are pursuing the international studies concentration since it will eliminate half the courses they can take to satisfy the concentration requirements,” said Fernandez. “The loss of the principles sections will mean larger class and we think that some of those sections are already too large.”

Fernandez sympathizes with the CFC, however: “The Council members who are having to make these decisions are in difficult and unenviable positions.”

The cutting process has been the subject of confusion and controversy. Brendan Morris, college junior and senate appointee to the Educational Policies and Planning Committee, clarified the procedure.

Morris explained that when positions are vacated, departments have to apply to have them refilled. It is important to note that all these cuts are being made through attrition – nobody is getting fired. The EPPC meets with the head of the department to discuss the position. The committee discusses it privately; these discussions are kept confidential.

The committee then takes a vote. There are four rankings of priority: one is highest, four is lowest. Everybody votes on which priority level they would assign to the position in question and the committee chair – last year, it was Associate Dean Nick Jones – writes up a report to submit to CFC and President Dye.

Last year there were eight faculty members and four students on the EPPC.

“Everyone’s vote is counted equally,” said Morris. “Students’ votes aren’t getting drowned out.”

CFC then meets with the chair and consults. They have the final vote. Dye and the former Dean of  the College of Arts and Sciences Harry Hirsch also each had a vote.

The criteria in part by which they judge positions is by how much they advance the goals of the Strategic Plan. One that Morris mentioned in particular was the Plan’s goal of internationalizing Oberlin.

 “This could put priorities on positions related to international politics, globalization and media,” he said. ”Positions in environmental science also may be judged to advance the Strategic Plan. These are just some of many possible criteria.”

Other criteria laid out in the documentation outlining the faculty reduction process include the position’s relevance to the trajectory of the discipline, the potential for connecting to other departments, maintaining a diverse faculty and the size of the department, among other considerations.

Morris also noted that in his considerations, positions involving courses required to complete respective majors received priority, another official criterion.

Morris praised the system saying, “I would say that the plus is it’s been very thorough. We have one committee that makes recommendations, one that makes decisions and Dye has her say. The department chair gets two chances to consult.”

He also voiced concerns. “I think it’s taking too long,” he said. “I’m concerned that the faculty reduction process is interfering with EPPC’s other commitments to educational plans. I would like to see it working on issues of the credit system, senior experience and other Strategic Plan working group recommendations.”

Professor Walsh – of the mathematics department — echoed these concerns:

“The process of cutting positions is unnecessarily drawn out. Many memos are written and many meetings are held with various committees.

“Something as unpleasant as this is best done swiftly,” Walsh said. He added, “The bottom line is that the reduction in the size of the faculty will have an adverse effect on students.”


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