Monday, October 17, 2005

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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9 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. What College are you at?

10:37 PM  
Blogger Tabor said...

I am so impressed by your vision as well as your ability to see the big picture at the same time. They are so lucky to have someone such as you working for them. Budgets are going to be such an issue for years to come. At least with pending retirements this should open the door for new employment.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous ACW said...

It seems defensible that at least one of the biology departments in the system should "specialize" in survey pedagogy: that that department should have tenured and tenure-track faculty with a primary focus on undergraduate biology education. The trouble is, of course, that there's no obvious funding source to support the required tenured position.

One possible way out is for that department to produce pedagogical materials (curricula, lecture notes, exam questions, human expertise) that could be consumed by the sister departments, who would benefit by not having to replicate this work for every introductory and survey course across the system. The other departments would be required to confess that this is worth money to them, and a system-level line item could be established for biology curriculum development -- and this line item used partly to support the tenured position.

The trend toward specialization that you identify in your post leaves the "pedagogy niche" almost vacant; an enterprising department might find that a fairly good living could be made in that niche.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

I do recall budget discussions in every department I've ever worked and the discussions were always dire. If you can figure out how to get yourself on the administration's radar and help them fulfill an obligation in those survey courses, they will come to rely on you. Become indispensible, there's so much job security in that! And as tabor says, retirements are pending.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Gibbie the labrat said...

Hmm, reminds me of my undergrad stint at Big U. It was the early 90s, but by and large the biology dept was clueless about the 'molecular revolution'. There was only one molecular lab in the dept, which I luckily got a voluteer position at, and propelled me toward grad school, which I am finally leaving after 8 years (MS and PhD).

Interesting post. I think these issues are becoming increasingly common, I truely feel for the 'pure' scientists. I do biomedical research, while there is more funding, there is also alot of competition. I am not sure which side is worse. But it seems overall a miserable situation.

3:12 AM  
Anonymous Nacho said...

Hi there, neat blog! Glad I found it. I'm an Assistant Prof. at a small private liberal arts University. What you describe is on target, what's more, lots of university service by departments is also not always compensated in other ways (not only in terms of budget), in flexibility, support, etc. A department might provide plenty in terms of general ed, yet the Univ. might reject position requests, etc. that arise from the increased burden. Deciding that the department just won't do as much service by fulfilling those general ed offerings ends up making the department suffer plenty also! All of this while diverse, neat offerings from the Department are not covered, the Universities don't allow adjuncts from teaching certain courses, etc., etc.

It is a frustrating situation, made worse by the fact that the Universities don't work very hard at keeping wonderful adjuncts.

Thanks for the post. So good to find your site.

Best Regards,

WoodMoor Village

12:47 PM  
Blogger RPM said...

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.

I respectfully disagree. The hot trend that I've noticed in biology today is interdisciplinary research. You cannot merely do molecular biology -- you also need a field component. Molecular evolution is meaningless unless you're looking at function, development, or at complex interaction networks.

Granted, these interdisciplinary projects are between specialists from multiple fields, but the massive amount of information required to do research in the life science necessitates specializing in a single field. This does not prevent broadly focussed research projects, but instead requires collaborative ventures.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Undersizeme said...

I'm a freelance health writer myself and I loved your blog about birds in the news.

On the subject of bird flu...

Leading advanced hygiene pioneer Dr Kenneth Seaton invested over 15 years developing practical strategies to help ordinary people avoid respiratory viruses like avian influenza, other ordinary strains of influenza and even the common cold...

Seaton knew 95% of viruses like the bird flu enter our bodies from contact between our fingernails and the mucous membranes of our eyes and nose.

Your fingernails harbor viruses and all you have to do is get virus droplets on your hands then touch your face and the cycle of virus transmission is complete.

These are three basic recommendations for avoiding the bird flu and other respiratory viruses based on Seaton's extensive research...

1. Don't touch your face with your hands. If you don't touch your face with your fingernails you should stop the virus entering your body through the mucous membranes of your eyes or nose.

2. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water every time you go to the toilet and any time you handle live birds, raw poultry or uncooked eggs.

3. Regularly perform warm facial dips to inactivate virus cells and wash them out of your nasal passageways.

Washing your hands is more complex than it might seem on the surface.

You need to use the right kinds of soap and if you can't use soap there's only one alternative that's proven by the USA Centers Of Disease Control to be effective and it's NOT an antibacterial solution.

Also most people have never even heard of a facial dip, let alone performed one.

This is a real shame because simple therapies like hand washing and facial dips are very easy to learn.

Keep up the fantastic quality in your blogs.

Kindest regards,
Andrew Cavanagh (AMWA)

P.S. If your readers would like a free report on how to use advanced hygiene to prevent catching viruses like the bird flu they can go to...

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Monaco said...

A very well written piece. The piece was very insightful about the academic politics of money and how it interacts (interferes?) with scientific research and the old fashion value of educating undergraduates. Thank you.

11:00 AM  

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