Donald O. Parsons: Restoring educational excellence at GW

As we enter the enrollment period for spring 2006 classes, students are reminded that something is not quite right at GW. The luckiest students sign up for the classes they want, courses taught by regular faculty members at reasonable hours. If they are very aware and have a choice in the matter, they end up in a classroom appropriate to the class size and presentation methods of the teacher. A second group of students eagerly grab courses they require for graduation, often without knowing who is teaching the course, much less how or where. The unluckiest face the scheduling nightmare of being closed out of all courses they need or are interested in taking.

In my experience, students take their scheduling disappointments surprisingly well. Scheduling losers grumble, but then wander off accepting their fate as if, like death, it is part of the human condition. It is not. The struggle with closed classes, and with many open ones taught by adjuncts, is not an accident, but a conscious policy decision by the administration and the Board of Trustees.

Indeed, the educational environment at GW has been seriously degraded in the last several years. (Much of the data discussed below can be found in a report by the Committee of Concerned Faculty, of which I was chair, on the University Senate Web site, http://www.gwu.edu/~facsen/)

Beginning in the fall of 1998, the administration embarked on the “Great Expansion,” pushing up full-time equivalent undergraduate enrollment by 50 percent, from 6,558 in the fall of 1997 to 9,816 in the fall of 2003. Full-time equivalent enrollments of graduate students grew by 17 percent, with the combined undergraduate and graduate full-time equivalent student population by 34 percent.

Increasing the primary activity of the University – the teaching of students – by one-third creates obvious pressures on teaching resources, and one would expect a corresponding increase in these resources. This has not happened. Such an endeavor, properly conducted, would be very expensive. Alas, the current administration has well known weaknesses in fundraising, which means the expansion has been financed almost wholly by debt and by squeezing both customers (current students) and workers (faculty and staff).

The salary squeeze on faculty and staff has led to considerable resistance from the faculty, both through the Faculty Senate for regular faculty and through collective bargaining processes for adjunct faculty. Students have been more obliging, and a large share of the expansion costs has been directly and indirectly borne by them.

Prices, in this case tuition, have raised and teaching quality degraded. To give some perspective, between the fall of 1998 and the fall of 2003, when the full-time equivalent student population soared by one-third, the full-time-equivalent tenure track faculty simultaneously dropped from 526 to 504. Small wonder that undergraduates are often pressed to find faculty members willing to write a recommendation for them.

Although the number of non-tenure track faculty and faculty adjuncts has increased to staunch the worst bleeding of educational quality, the total full-time equivalent faculty, tenure-track, non-tenure track, and adjunct, has increased by only 11 percent. In the short run, it is very profitable to expand students by 34 percent and teachers by 11 percent, with all additional teachers being adjunct and non-tenure track faculty. However, I would argue that this quality degradation is a serious threat to the future of the University. Again the close-out problem, the large classes and the high volume of adjunct teaching are not accidental, but conscious administration policy. Having undertaken the Great Expansion without adequate support resources, the administration is “watering the milk.”

As with any consciously chosen policy, this one can be changed. It would not seem unreasonable for students to demand a return to the educational quality levels many expected at GW. The hiring of tenure track faculty is a longer-term affair, but in the short run it is entirely possible to increase rapidly the number of adjuncts at GW. A crude calculation suggests that we could restore the 1998 student/faculty ratio by doubling the current adjunct budget.

A doubling of adjuncts would only eliminate the course close-out and large class problem or more precisely return it to 1998 levels, but would not address the teaching quality issue. A second stage of the restoration project would require the phased replacement of adjunct professors with regular tenure-track professors. The hiring of approximately 200 new (above replacement) tenure-track faculty would be required to restore the ratio of full-time equivalent students to tenure track faculty.

To avoid straining the capacity of the departments to absorb so many additional faculty members and to give the administration time to build the appropriate office and lab facilities for them, I would suggest spreading over time this second, quality-focused wave of the Great Expansion. Spread over five years, the quality restoration project would require hiring 40 additional (above replacement) tenure track faculty per year. A less ambitious program would spread the restoration over 10 years with a corresponding reduction in the annual hiring rate. Of course, the administration in place at the end of that time may decide that GW should have greater ambitions than the restoration of 1998 teaching resource levels, and continue the super-hiring process.

-The writer is a professor of economics and the economics department chair.

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