'Confluence of issues' leaves Social Sciences short-staffed for fall

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New College prides itself on being a place where professors and their pupils can form tight-knit relationships. But with five professors from New College’s Division of Social Sciences either being on full-time academic leave or leaving the school altogether next academic year, students may find themselves worrying that their bonds may be breaking prematurely.

Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Division of Social Sciences David Harvey told the Catalyst there was no need to panic: “We are going to muddle through and hold down the fort as best we can, but it is a real concern,” Harvey said. “We are going to be significantly shorthanded in terms of tenured or tenure-track faculty who can sponsor theses and that does mean that those people who are around are going to be substantially overloaded.”

Among those professors who will be leaving are Assistant Professor of History Bob Johnson (two-year academic leave without pay), Associate Professor of Political Science Frank Alcock (one-year academic leave) and Assistant Professor of Political Science Joe Mink (leaving New College for Hobart and William Smith College). Additionally, Professor of Economics Catherine Elliott and Associate Professor of Psychology & current Provost Charlene Callahan are retiring. Tenure-track replacements for Callahan and Elliott have yet to be hired despite searches that have lasted throughout this academic year. Harvey stated, though, that the division is “hopeful that we will be able to make tenure-track hires in those areas but certainly, in both cases, we’ve had candidates turn us down for a number of reasons.” Tenure-track searches to replace Assistant Professor of History Kathryn Dungy and Assistant Professor of Sociology Chavella Pittman, who both left before this academic year began, will take place in the fall.

Harvey stressed that the absences in the division were not unprecedented atypical. “A certain amount of turnover is normal, you know,” he said. “People retire and they do get replaced. Sometimes, people who are early- or mid-career here leave to take jobs elsewhere. We try to attract the very best faculty that we can, and over the last five or 10 years, I think we’ve been really successful. We’ve attracted some outstanding junior faculty in the division. The challenge is that people with that strong of records will get other offers, and we try to do what we can to keep them, but sometimes they will decide to leave. We have had a confluence of issues that a lot of those kinds of cases have come together at once.”

Why would professors turn down a place like New College? For one thing, money talks. “In the case of economics, it’s primarily financial,” Harvey explained. “We have a very flat salary scale, which means that there’s not a whole lot of variation in salary by discipline and there’s not that great of variation by rank. That is, we try to be competitive in hiring new people but the prospects of raises across one’s career are relatively meager here compared to some places. There are significant disparities between disciplines nationwide in the academic market, and economics is a field where the national salary range is substantially higher than in most other social sciences fields because economists have other options.” Harvey went on to say that the first- and second-choice candidates for filling the tenure-track line in psychology turned down New College due to family circumstances and said that despite the troubles in finding new faculty members, neither one of the searches has been declared failed.

When asked to identify areas in which New College could improve its likelihood of retaining faculty members, Harvey said that making salaries more competitive, while difficult to do in a time of financial austerity, would be helpful, along with spreading out the workload each faculty member has. He suggested that fields with increasing levels of popularity should have new hires prioritized and that disciplines should not be afraid to cap classes or the numbers of students allowed in specific Areas of Concentration (AOCs). “To their credit,” Harvey said, “I think the faculty in these areas have been reluctant to do that. They care very deeply about their students and they don’t want to exclude students from majoring in an area that they want to study. But because they don’t, they increase their own workload to a point where, eventually, it can become unsustainable, and I think that a little more careful management along the way might bring numbers down a little bit and make the burden easier for people to bear.”

As for classes on offer next academic year, visiting professors will be brought in next academic year to teach classes normally offered by professors who will be on leave, Harvey noted, ensuring that the overall academic program will not suffer as a result of their departures. “Students shouldn’t think that if someone leaves that a whole field will disappear,” he said. “We should be offering the same number of courses in those fields as we would normally offer but we will be shorthanded in terms of people who can do sponsorship [of theses and contracts].” He continued by adding that Visiting Assistant Professor of History Andrew de la Garza and Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Laura Hirshfield will remain on campus next academic year and that a visitor from the College of William and Mary, Christopher Marcoux, will teach classes next academic year normally offered by Professor Alcock. A further visitor will teach American History classes normally offered by Professor Johnson.

“I think they [students] are right to be concerned — this is an anomalous situation,” Harvey said. “It does raise issues of overload for other faculty in affected disciplines. But I don’t think they should panic. There will be people here for them to work with. We’re not going to kick students to the curb just because the person they thought they were going to be working with is going to be leaving or will be absent from the college. But, it does mean that everybody’s going to have to be a little bit flexible and patient with one another.”

Harvey suggested that students who are looking to graduate next academic year consider all options carefully with respect to which professors may serve on their baccalaureate committees. “They only have to have two faculty from a discipline on their bacc committee,” he noted. “The third reader can be from outside the discipline. For very heavily-burdened disciplines next year, I would strongly encourage students to look to have a third reader from outside the discipline. That’s something they can do to lighten the burden on the faculty who will be keeping the lights on and the motors running.”

Despite the tumults facing the division, Harvey remains optimistic. “It will be a difficult situation for us next year, I think,” he said. “But with goodwill and with cooperation, I think we’ll get through it. Certainly, whenever we lose someone we do replace them, so long-term we are going to be okay. Short-term, this obviously does create some inconveniences for everyone.”

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