RPC to look at reducing faculty course load

By Anna Waugh

The Resources and Planning Committee (RPC) is beginning to look at reducing the number of courses faculty members teach and increasing the frequency with which they can take sabbaticals. If implemented, such moves could impact class sizes and Macalester’s student-to-faculty ratio.

It has been over fifteen years since the last comprehensive look at the college’s expectations for its faculty. At that time, faculty taught six courses per year, including one during the January term—before Macalester did away with January course offerings. The college then decided to reduce the course load to allow faculty to work more on their own research projects.

Today, Macalester’s full-time, non-science faculty teach five courses per year. Science professors teach four and oversee labs. This puts Macalester on par with its peer schools.

However, Macalester faculty members are granted sabbaticals less often than professors at some peer schools.

Faculty at Smith College in Amherst, Mass., receive a full-year sabbatical for every five years of teaching. At Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., they receive one semester every three years.

When faculty members at Macalester pass their third year review, they receive one semester of paid leave. They are granted another semester upon receiving tenure, and then one semester for each seven years taught after that.

“Sabbaticals are very restorative,” English professor Theresa Krier said. On sabbaticals, faculty members are able to focus on their own research projects, read, relax, and travel. Economics professor Gary Krueger finished writing his book, “Enterprise Restructuring and the Role of Managers in Russia” on his last sabbatical.
Since RPC last examined this issue 15 years ago, a lot has changed at the college.

More students are interested in their own research—doing independent studies, honors projects, and senior seminars.

“We take pride in working with students one on one,” Provost Diane Michelfelder said.

Yet, these projects are time-consuming for the professors who work as mentors for the students, and many said they simply feel like it is too much.

“My semesters when there are three [classes], all my focus is on managing my energy and managing students. There is no room for thinking,” Krier said.

Michelfelder asked the RPC this year to look into options for changing professors’ sabbatical cycle and the course schedule to help faculty and students use classroom time most effectively.
“I’m thinking of the nature of the work the faculty actually does,” Michelfelder said. “Five years down the road will we be able to do more independent studies and collaborative projects with students?”

The RPC, led by newly elected chair Physics professor James Heyman, is creating models for two distinct changes. The committee is looking at the costs and benefits of going to a 2-2 teaching year (two courses per semester), from the current 2-3. It is also examining the sabbatical cycle.

Professors agree that both of these changes would be welcome. They would help improve their teaching, they say.

In the English department, Krier said that she would be able to work more on student writing.

Krueger said that there are more opportunities to “ask more interesting questions” on tests when teaching only two classes because there is more time for grading.

Reducing professors’ class loads and adding more time for sabbatical could be costly for the college, however. The RPC is considering a number of models for that reason.

Heyman said that one possibility would be to only reduce the teaching load while maintaining current class sizes. However, this would require about forty new faculty hires, a notable expense considering that 20 percent of the operating budget already is earmarked for faculty salaries.

Another option would be to increase class size, a move that would put the small class sizes for which Macalester markets itself at risk.

Such a move would not comply with administrative goals. Macalester currently has a student-to-faculty ratio of 10.8 to 1, but Michelfelder said that she would like to see this ratio drop in the next few years down to ten to one.

“Almost all of the options [being considered] would lower faculty-student ratios,” Heyman said.

Heyman said he thinks that the RPC will be done with the review by the end of next spring, in 2007. President Brian Rosenberg will make final decisions at that point.