Faculty Meeting with the President
I attended the second departmental meeting of my so-called professional life today. This was a meeting between the biology department staff and the president of our little college on the hill. The focus of this meeting was money; how money affects tenure-track hiring (a tenure track is referred to as a "line" .. a term I mistakenly thought applied only to certain illegal drugs); space allocation, expansion and refurbishment; the quality of new graduate students and faculty; and how to compete successfully for city and state funds for our department when there are 16 other "branch campuses" in the university system with "sister" biology departments that share these funding issues.
Even though a variety of complaints and topics were mentioned during this meeting, the overriding concern was for the future development of the department itself. The department's future depends upon funding, and funding depends upon the special niche that the biology department defines for itself among all sister biology departments that exist within the larger university system. Unfortunately, this funding problem is larger than our department, and even our college; the entire university system is experiencing a terrible budget crunch this year, a crunch that the president hopes will be alleviated in next year's legislative session. Needless to say, the competition for money is ferocious between sister departments within the university system, and even among all the departments at the same college.
To this end, my colleagues discussed how next year's two "new hires" should strengthen the department as it seeks to formally consolidate its special position for funding within the larger college and university system. The goal; to explicitly establish our little department as the "lead" in the university system with regards to a particular subdiscipline or two within the biological sciences. Apparently, a department that is not the "lead" for any biological specialty within this particular university system is at a huge disadvantage when it comes to attracting graduate students and the public funding that comes with them.
If I recall correctly, several specialities that have already been or are being established by other biology departments within the university system are plant biology, molecular biology, and "ecoevo" (ecology and evolution). As I understand it, our biology department is much more comprehensive than our sisters at the other colleges because it always concentrated on providing a strong broad-based biology education to undergraduate students from a wide variety of majors, rather than concentrating mainly on the more focused needs of graduate students. Our nearly universal coverage of biology subjects has been an advantage for producing well-informed graduates in other professions, but at the same time, it has worked against this biology department's long-term interests because it has led to a general lack of research space and funding to purchase essential (and expensive) teaching and research equipment. Thus, a lack of space and funding is less attractive to potential graduate students, and fewer grad students results in decreased quality of new faculty actually hired along with an increased turn-over among tenured faculty, leading to a growing reliance on adjuncts to fulfill teaching duties.
Or so they said. I have never seen a direct connection between the quality of graduate students and new faculty, turn-over of established faculty and over reliance upon adjuncts for teaching. In fact, the only connection that I have seen regarding institutional over-reliance upon adjuncts has been purely monetary: briefly, adjunct professors are extremely cheap labor by any standard, not only because they are paid very badly, but also because they receive no benefits whatsoever, they work part-time and then after they have invested several years into the system and thereby qualify for a miniscule pay raise, their contracts are either "not renewed" (they are "fired") or their hours are cut, so a new adjunct can be hired more cheaply in their place. Further, despite departmental assurances to adjuncts that they will be interviewed for future open "lines", there is a tremendous bias against hiring adjuncts for any tenure-track position because, as the reasoning goes, if a person is good enough to be tenured faculty, that person never would have had to work as an adjunct in the first place.
Generally, higher education is being managed like a large and unwieldy corporation; not only is funding decreasing for many university departments, but entire university departments are also being cut to protect the institution's "bottom line". Additionally, the long-term monetary investment in the future of individual departments has decreased substantially. These "corporations" prefer to force their potential future employees -- who are new graduates, often deeply in debt while trying to start a family at the same time -- to make that huge investment on their own. All adjuncts that I know either teach at two or three campuses each semester, they rely on a fully-employed spouse, or they hold a full-time job outside of academics simply to survive. Certainly, no one is getting rich by working as an adjunct. After two or three years of this forced poverty and overwork, most adjuncts give up and leave academics altogether.
But I digress.
During the meeting, the faculty and staff expressed particular concern for the non-majors' biology "survey" courses that have annual enrollments of 700-800 students at our college. One reason for this disproportionately high enrollment is because these survey courses fulfill the basic science requirement for all university students, regardless of their major field. But unfortunately, even though the department offers these required survey courses to the general university community, they are not adequately compensated for doing so in terms of increased funding, equipment and faculty research space, so keeping experienced faculty who teach these courses is becoming increasingly difficult. Further, the consensus among the faculty was that hiring an adjunct to teach one of these survey courses was invariably "a disaster" because these survey courses demand an excessive time commitment that cannot be adequately compensated for by the adjunct salary.
To ensure their funding within the university system, the faculty considered field biology as one possible subdiscipline of specialization for the department. It turns out that this department always had a strong field component among its course offerings, but all of the impending faculty retirements within the next 2-3 years are field biologists, leaving only one field biologist on the faculty. After they retire, courses with a strong field component, such as entomology and parasitology, will be available only as a hodgepodge of inconsistent offerings among the 17 biology departments within the university system -- if at all. But at the same time, the department must also meet the demand to train its students in high technology (molecular biology, etc.), so their biology graduates might possibly find paying jobs in the field.
Unfortunately, this general lack of regard for field biology has been a long-term trend, I've noticed. Even though I am a molecular biologist, I am also an ornithologist and I have spent some time in the field, so I have tremendous respect for good field research. Despite this, I strongly doubt that a specialization in field biology will gain any funding or respect for any biology department, especially within this university system, although I think it is a noble and worthwhile goal: I think this department must have a second (more practical and employable) focus as well, such as "evodevo" (evolution and developmental biology), cancer biology, molecular phylogenetics and evolution, or bioinformatics. I am sure the faculty has already thought of this, but it was never plainly stated during this meeting.
But this discussion raises an important issue that is facing biology today; this national trend to sacrifice a broadly-based biological knowledge in our relentless pursuit of increasing specialization. On one hand, specialization is a powerful advantage because it allows scientists to focus their energies and funds more productively than ever before, to push back the boundaries of humanity's ignorance and to make astonishing discoveries almost daily. But we as a society are so bedazzled by the resulting smorgasbord of discovery and innovation that we seem to have forgotten that specialization has its limits, too; it can lead to alienation between the fields and a lack of vision tempered by reality among our scientists. If we isolate biology into competitive subdisciplines that rarely communicate or collaborate with each other, we will lose the ability to see, to understand and to successfully deal with the larger biological challenges that we will be faced with; problems that we can address only if we possess an expansive knowledge of and appreciation for all living things.
After this meeting, I feel somewhat heartened because I can realistically try to fill this peculiar niche. Even though I have a strong molecular biology background, I also have some experience with avian field work and I am (once again) thinking about how I can refocus some of my energy into pursuing a research project or collaboration with a formal field work component that will lead to a peer-reviewed publication. I already have one (recently rejected) grant proposal that I am particularly fond of that I should rework and rewrite. Hopefully, one of my "hybrid" field biology-molecular biology grant poposals will be accepted.
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