Over the past week, I have attended several department information sessions in preparation for the sophomore plan. More than any of the requirements, recommendations and advice on the proper way to explain a major choice to disapproving family members, what has stuck with me is the feeling that there are not enough professors to go around. Many departments seem to be shrinking uncontrollably, or are at least unable to keep up with growing interest.
The political science department, with one of the largest majors in the school, has recently been denied an application for a tenure-track position, and is not optimistic about its chances for this application cycle. At the information session, we were assured that the department would do its best to fit us into the classes we wanted, but given the current size of the faculty, this would not always be possible. The problem will only be exacerbated as the school shifts down to a four-course load for professors, while simultaneously expanding its student body.
The most disturbing case I have encountered is in the history department. The underlying theme of the information session seemed to be a constant need to apologize for the lack of professors available to teach classes. With the departure of Professor Pieter Judson at the end of last semester, the department was already dealing with finding qualified instructors to teach courses, and facing the elimination of a popular honors seminar. But with the unexpected departure of professor Rosie Bsheer this semester, it seems as though the department is shrinking before our very eyes. When this is combined with the necessary process of periodically removing courses and seminars from the rotation, it becomes a bit of a challenge to both fill requirements and find classes in the specialties one wishes to pursue.
When a student asked if these missing professors would be replaced, the answer only confirmed our worst fears — the department would likely not be able to fill the slots within the next couple of years, and would not be searching for a new Middle East specialist. The department has decided that it is futile to continue to chase after temporary appointments and has instead opted to pursue an added tenure track position in the future.
Given the current status of tenure-track applications, this future seems be very distant. As important as it is to ensure the hiring of a permanent professor, this does little to alleviate the concerns of current students left unable to pursue the areas of study they believed they would have access to when they decided to come to Swarthmore.
The history department is by no means ignorant of this problem. It is reasonable to insist on waiting for a tenure track position. The department is demonstrating to the administration that the constant cycle of instructors, lecturers and visiting assistant professors does not meet the needs of the student body.
But while this is pursued, those of us in the department are left with an incomplete program. There is no better evidence of the failure of this system than the departure of Bsheer. Just as members of the department had worried, she left a temporary position at Swarthmore to accept a tenure track position at Yale. How many professors need to be enticed away before the college will grant the department the ability to offer its hires the promise of job security?
Expanding the number of tenure track positions is particularly important in a subject like history, where fields of study are so sharply delineated. It is simply unrealistic to ask an expert in modern Latin American history to also head up the study of ancient Chinese civilization. While the skills are transferable, the various specialties in history require entirely different bodies of knowledge. It is unfair to expect a college the size of Swarthmore to have every region covered, but the current gaps are uncomfortably wide.
An institution so committed to providing a wellrounded and socially relevant education should not prevent its students from engaging meaningfully in the study of regions that will influence the shape of the global community for decades to come. The department has done all it can to provide this opportunity. Without additional tenure-track positions, we must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never see classes on modern Middle Eastern history in our time at Swarthmore.
Visiting professors are of course important to the functioning of a college, but a department cannot exist without the consistency of tenured faculty. This problem can be seen across many departments and across all three divisions of the college. One of the major appeals of any small college is the ability to build lasting relationships with faculty members over the course of one’s studies. It is to the detriment of the community when this opportunity is unavailable. Of course, the college has many factors it must take into account when making budget decisions, most of which I cannot pretend to understand. Still, Swarthmore is, at its core, an academic institution. Thus, one of its chief concerns should be ensuring that students get the academic experience we are led to believe we will when we decide to come to Swarthmore. This cannot happen without a sufficient number of professors who will be around long enough for us to get to know with some consistency.
As recent events have shown, the college cannot hope to attract qualified academics without giving them the proper incentives. Tenured faculty form the foundation of any department, and these positions must be increased to keep up with the legitimate interests of departments and students alike. From my own experience, this means granting the history department the tenure-track position it needs to make up for just one of the recent losses, but I am sure that this sentiment could be echoed across many departments.
In order to meet its obligations as an educational institution, Swarthmore must find a way to expand the availability of its most basic resource — its professors.