The Board of Trustees made a mistake. They grew the faculty too much, too quickly over the last few years, and now are needing to make cuts, which they are doing by not renewing certain tenure track positions of retiring professors. There is no way for this process to go smoothly because no matter which positions are not renewed there are going to be fewer professors on this campus. This will undoubtedly mean some departments will have to shrink.
Based off of the current plan, the departments that will not have their faculty positions renewed are mostly in the humanities and social sciences. This seems to show that Whitman as a whole is shifting its focus away from the liberal arts while continuing to support STEM fields, as Matt Reynolds addressed in his op-ed. The current student-to-faculty ratio needs to be increased to be more sustainable.
I’m going to ask a question, and it’s going to make a lot of students and faculty upset. What is the better option? One of the key factors in determining which positions wouldn’t be renewed was the number of students majoring in those departments and the class sizes. This seems to have erupted in a war: humanities and social sciences versus STEM. The cause? What students want to major in.
Studying chemistry, I haven’t had equal access to smaller classes. I’ve been in overfilled labs, where we have to partner up since there isn’t enough lab space. I’ve been waitlisted for classes required for my major, while my social science friends are getting cozy with their professors in three-person history classes. I was shocked to learn that Whitman’s student to faculty ratio was eight students because I’ve only experienced that in four of the classes I’ve ever taken. I’m absolutely jealous of the small class sizes that other students experience, but I accepted that I wouldn’t have that with my major.
Some students and professors are suggesting that Whitman shouldn’t let half of the first year class take General Chemistry in order to encourage them to try other fields (157 students took General Chemistry in the fall of 2016). However, there is a national trend towards STEM fields that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Blame it on the Recession of 2008, blame it on parents pressuring their children into STEM for stable jobs, blame it on Whitman’s Communications Department promoting our sciences. Whatever way you see it, students are going to continue to major in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and now Computer Science. Whitman can either continue to support STEM and grow the departments or suffer financially.
It is indeed unfortunate that the specific positions that won’t be filled are key in those departments. But, Whitman’s mission is to provide a well-rounded education in the liberal arts and sciences that encourages “creativity, character, and responsibility.” Regardless of their major, every student came to Whitman looking for a liberal arts education. And, even with these faculty changes, students will get that. But, tell me, how can Whitman fairly support students in every department when there are some classes with just a handful of students and other classes with every chair filled in Brattain Auditorium and ten students squeezed around a tiny table during office hours?
My favorite classes at Whitman haven’t been in STEM. They have been in English, World Literature and Rhetoric. I can graduate this month confident that Whitman pushed me to take classes outside of STEM that helped me be more critical, thoughtful and communicative. But, unfortunate as it is, if the number of faculty needs to be reduced for Whitman to be financially stable, it only makes sense to shrink departments with fewer students. It’s a lot easier to not backfill positions than to let tenured professors go.