Letters to the Editor

Letter: Lighten the burden of interdisciplinary programs

By
Thursday, April 16, 2009

To the Editor:

While I applaud Nick Hagerty ’10 for his continued focus on University issues, his most recent column (“Academic Inequality,” April 13) has some poor proposals.

He starts off his column by stating that faculty turnover is slow.  This could not be further from the truth.  The figure I have recently heard cited states that 40 percent of the faculty at Brown has arrived in the last six years. Continued focus on our hiring practices and tenure policies are critical to maintaining the university-college.

Hagerty then proceeds to say that for the sake of smaller class sizes, departments with higher teaching loads, such as economics, should have more full-time-equivalent appointments available to them.  This model exists at other universities across the country, and turns undergraduate education into a race to form the best “gut” course. 

For example, Biology may want to ensure that all students with distribution requirements in science take their easy nutrition course so their enrollment is higher and they receive more funding and more faculty as a result.  The effect is bad enough when there are required courses, but at Brown, where students are able to create their general curriculum, the translation of easy credits to resources would be too great for any department to resist.

The teaching burden at Brown is not felt most by departments like economics (where there are currently three seniors writing theses), it is felt by interdisciplinary programs with no “center” or department to call its own, like development studies (where all concentrators are required to write a thesis). In these fields, it can be difficult to supply courses required for concentrators from year to year, and hiring in other departments with their own priorities, which may or may not align with a particular interdisciplinary field, is not responsive enough to the needs of students on campus.  For these concentrators size is not an issue; the issue is ensuring required courses are offered to begin with.
How we appoint FTEs is a very tricky issue that should be explored further, but course enrollment is a bad model to follow, especially at Brown.

Jason Becker ’07
April 15