Macalester should hire more environmental studies faculty

Macalester should hire more environmental studies faculty

Kaela Bloemendaal, Contributing Writer

The most recent Macalester Fact Book data shows numbers from the 2011-12 school year up to the most recent data. This data confirms my own observations: the environmental studies (ES) department needs more faculty. 

The ES department is experiencing rapidly increasing student interest in a manner nearly unprecedented across the 30 academic departments on campus. The number of declared majors in ES has grown by 86% between fall 2012 and fall 2021. This is 62% faster than the college average, making ES the third fastest growing major. Standardized course enrollment (defined as “a metric that weighs student enrollment in classes by the number of credits for which each student is enrolled”) in ES has grown by 58% between the 2011-12 and 2021-22 school years. This is 48% faster than the college average, making ES the second fastest growing of all of the departments in terms of student enrollment. 

However, there has not been a corresponding increase in ES faculty, leading to current faculty being overworked. Comparing 2021-22 course enrollment to the most recent full-time faculty teaching loads (the amount of full-time faculty it would take to account for all courses taught in a department) data from 2020-21 shows how well the two quantities have balanced over time; ideally, this ratio would be one, showing that the two variables are growing or shrinking at the same rate. Across departments, the average change for this ratio is 1.04. For the ES department, it’s 1.34, a 25% faster increase than the college average. This means that, over the past nine years, ES has experienced 34% higher course enrollment per faculty member. 

However, this number doesn’t reflect the true magnitude of the problem. Course enrollment is a number that is more or less held steady by departments; course sizes are set before registration begins, which likely accounts for why course size has been fairly constant over the past decade. For that reason, I also compared teaching loads to declared majors. The declared major to full-time teaching load ratio for the ES department in 2021 alone is 16.49, nearly twice the college average, and the third highest of all of the departments. For reference, over the past nine years, this statistic has increased 41% more for ES than the college average. This would primarily affect the amount of work ES faculty must do as advisors. 

This disparity doesn’t only affect faculty, however; it limits how many students can take classes in the ES department. During my time at Macalester, the required courses for the ES major have become nearly exclusive to students who have declared an ES major, and upperclassmen at that. The department has had to instate a permissions system for registration to ensure that the many majors can get into limited required course spots, which has the negative effect that non-majors will be hard pressed to get into any of those courses. By definition, those courses are the ones that the department sees as most relevant, necessary and foundational. However,  students interested in exploring the ES major or using one of their elective slots to learn about one of  today’s most pressing issues are turned away out of necessity. 

And recent studies suggest that students are indeed interested: a 2021 survey on climate anxiety in 10,000 young people (ages 16-25) found that at least 84% of respondents were moderately worried about climate change, with 59% very or extremely worried; over 45% said that “their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” 

We can see this concern reflected in the recent influx of new majors in the ES department, a number that has increased by at least 20% in the semester since the numbers in the Fact Book for Fall 2021. Macalester students are intensely worried about climate change, and the one department on campus focused specifically on the issue is not equipped with enough faculty to handle that worry. 

Fortunately, there is a precedent in a department experiencing as intense growth as the ES department and getting the faculty to match: the infamously large math, statistics and computer science department (MSCS). Their course enrollment numbers are leagues higher than any other department, and have been growing the fastest. They are the one department that consistently ranks above ES in growth over time. However, they’ve also had their faculty teaching loads increased accordingly, so their course enrollment to teaching loads ratio from most recent data is only 1.04. That ratio for the ES department, again, is 1.34. Now, just because this ratio is closer to one for MSCS does not mean that MSCS professors are working in a blissful, stress-free environment. They’re probably also overworked. But, from a purely numeric perspective, I am willing to hold them up as an example of the fact that Macalester is capable of allotting more faculty to departments that need them. 

With that, though, Macalester should really hire more faculty overall to keep up with student growth. If full-time faculty teaching loads had grown at the same rate as standardized course enrollment across Macalester, there would be 8.48 more full-time faculty teaching loads today than currently exist. If teaching loads had grown at the same rate as full-time equivalent students, there would be 14.26 more full-time faculty teaching loads today than currently exist. 

Yes, I understand that total compensation and benefits paid out to employees (faculty and staff salaries, as well as employee benefits and student wages) has grown by 26% over the past decade. I understand that the college’s income and expenditure have been more or less balanced over that same time period. I also understand that Macalester’s comprehensive fee (including tuition, room, board and an activity fee) has grown by 39% since the 2012-2013 school year, that Macalester is far from the only college sporting a bonkers tuition spike in recent years, and that federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009. Whatever, man. Money will always be complicated, and I’m no expert, but it seems like Macalester should hire more faculty in the ES department.