Academic review to shape faculty size

A committee responsible for conducting an extensive academic review of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is homing in on possible ways for the University to allocate teaching positions across departments.

For the past four years, the University has been unable to fund as many new teaching positions and initiatives as it could before the onset of the recession in 2008, Provost Benjamin Polak said, adding that new strategies are necessary to ensure that departments can plan for the future. Last fall, then-Provost Peter Salovey, who will become University president on June 30, formed a 14-person Academic Review Committee, a group charged with determining the optimum size of the faculty and with recommending a new system for allocating teaching positions, known as “slots,” between departments.

Economics professor Steven Berry, who serves as the chair of the committee, said he expects to release a “broad set of ideas” to the FAS by the end of this term.

“We’re too far away from deciding, so I think it’s misleading to say, ‘Well, we’ve had this one idea, but we also had this other idea,’” Berry said, declining to comment more specifically on possible solutions the committee might recommend. “We’re focused on trying to get to some kind of at least preliminary recommendations or outlines that we can share with the faculty by the end of the term.”

Berry said the committee is still gathering information, and has asked the faculty advisory committees of the four academic divisions — physical sciences and engineering, biological sciences, social sciences and humanities — to talk to their department chairs and report back to the committee shortly after spring break.

The committee has not addressed the overall size of the FAS yet, Berry said, adding that a larger faculty size “will always bring more research excellence, opportunities for students to interact with faculty and a greater variety of classes” but also comes with budgetary trade-offs. Berry added that discussions about the size of the faculty will likely begin in the fall once Polak and Salovey have had time to familiarize themselves with the costs and benefits of different faculty sizes.

Berry said decision-making about faculty hiring became highly centralized during the recession when the University decided to cap the FAS at around 700 positions. The committee will likely recommend an allocation system similar to the one in place before the recession, which focused on departments, he said, but with an additional mechanism for allocating slots toward a general pool to fund new initiatives, such as faculty diversity.

Recent committee discussions have stressed the importance of hiring more women in the sciences, Polak said.

“Right now we’re at a critical juncture historically where more women scientists are coming out of postdoc,” he said. “Half the great scientists in the world will be women, and we’re going to lead that.”

The committee has had to consider “tricky details” such as how to allocate faculty positions while working around endowed chairs, which are permanent professorships founded by gifts to the University, Polak said.

“That’s a little bit of a problem because you wouldn’t want to leave the engineering school only with positions that can be used for railway engineering,” he said. “It’s a question of how to prevent specifically endowed positions from jamming up the process too much.”

Salovey also tasked the committee last fall with addressing the discrepancy between the slots the University has authorized and the slots it has budgeted, known as the “slot overhang.” Polak said the University promised more slots before the recession than it can now fill, which has led departments to feel uncertain about whether or not they will be able to hire in the future. With the slot overhang, instead of waiting to hire the best candidates, departments have incentives to hire immediately when given the opportunity, he said.

“Our aim is to fill every slot with the best person in the world,” Polak said. “That takes time and effort, so if you get into a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality, you’re not going to end up with the best people.”

Berry said there needs to be a permanent system under which departments can feel confident they will have access to the slots they were promised and can plan for the future.

Five other committee members did not respond to requests for comment.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences had 682 tenured and tenure-track professors at the start of this fall.

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