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Faculty Trends

anon2 (who really ought to join us as an author) writes about future faculty numbers.

Not that it is related to the question of Swarthmore v. Williams, but I can’t give David a pass on his comment that Williams is stuck with a faculty of 250 for the foreseeable future. This statement is only true if you can’t see very far into the future.

Perhaps I should clarify future to be “next three years.” The Trustees have made it very clear that they will not allow Williams to keep spending too much (more than 5%) from the endowment beyond the next year or two at most. So, three years from now, we will need to bring costs into line with that reality. Will Williams be meaningfully below 250 faculty by then? No.

Roughly 40% of the faculty is within 10 years of normal retirement age (which I assume means 65) according to the Presidential search prospectus.

True. (And the Prospectus is a fascinating document. Recommended reading for all. Kudos to Greg Avis ’80 and the rest of the Presidential Search Committee.) But you really think that many Williams faculty are going to retire in the near future? The vast majority of them have just seen about half their wealth evaporate. Doing a job they love (teaching Williams students) is going to seem an appealing option. The College has no way to make them leave, although it has in the past provided incentives of various kinds.

Another chunk of faculty does not have tenure; some of these will leave (whether denied tenure or to avoid a potential negative decision). Others will leave for lots of other reasons (e.g., family reasons). Some (notice: I did not say “lots” or “many”) might even leave because they find other jobs more attractive.

True again. But the academic and other job markets have evaporated. And, even during the flush years, only a handful of faculty (2-3?) left each year (other then tenure denials). Do you think that a greater than average number of faculty will leave in the next few years? I will take the other side of that bet. Notice, also, that the College’s tenure denial rate (at least in the last few years) has been less than 25%. (Some are eased out earlier.) By all accounts, the class of professors hired 5-8 years ago has been very strong. I hope/trust that the College will evaluate them for tenure fairly. i.e., without regard to the crisis.

Put all that together and might you have 1-5 departures each year for the next 3 years. Sure. But the College is still hiring! I see 7 new tenure-track hires in that listing. So, if anything, I bet that there will be more tenure and tenure-track faculty in 2009-2010 then there are this year. And I also expect the College to do at least some hiring next year.

It is probably reasonable to expect 8 (or so) departures per year. If you have enough foresight to plan on a five-year horizon, reducing the size of the faculty is possible. Is it a good idea? Compared to what? I don’t know. However, to deny this simple arithmetic suggests a lack of understanding of the situation.

I love empirical debates! As usual, the most difficult thing is deciding on a source for the data to settle the debate. Does Williams report the exact number of faculty (not including visitors) anywhere on its website? Perhaps we could use AAUP data. See here for 2007-2008. I bet that Williams will have at least 245 faculty members in 2011-2012. By then, major cuts will be necessary (barring a dramatic bounce-back in the market).

Again, it is most likely that anon2 and I are in agreement. He might also think that 245 is a reasonable baseline for 2011-2012. He just thinks that, given natural attrition, the College could be down to 200 by 2020. And he could be right! But none of that matters to the next three years. The College is stuck with around 250 faculty members until 2012. The Trustees demand that the budget be brought under control before then. Therefore, the major cuts will have to come, regardless of what any of us might think about the long-term (5+ years) composition of the faculty.

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#1 Comment By anon2 On March 31, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

David —

No. I don’t think a greater than average number of faculty will leave in the next few years. Just the opposite.

We probably disagree on the expected number of faculty departures. I can’t imagine anyone else giving a damn about the following insight but I’m silly enough to argue with you today.

I didn’t think deeply about picking 8 per year. But, if I had to think more about the issue, a simple model of replacement rates in a population would be useful. Roughly speaking, the expected number of replacement hires (births) in a population is related to the average length of stay in the population (life expectancy). For a population of 250, if life expectancy is 25 years, then the steady state replacements should be 10 per year. (If everyone stayed exactly 25 years, then hire 10 people each year and have 10 leave each year.)

I would guess the average stay of a faculty member is about 20 years (some leave after just a few years, some stay for 15-20, and some stay for a long time); this implies replacement hiring of 12.5 per year. To get an expected rate of 8 per year, the expected stay is over 30 years. To get it down to 5, the expected stay is 50 years — which can’t be true since a few people do leave in the first few years of starting and few people teach at age 80.

What factors would lower this rate now? We agree on (a) lower retirement due to the wealth effect (though I hope the 60 year olds had moved more to bonds than you assume) and (b) weaker outside opportunities. I, however, think that the fact that the College is relatively heavy with younger people may increase the departure rate to higher than average. This isn’t just about tenure — younger academics have all sorts of family issues. (50 year old faculty have kids in local schools, etc.) In any event, my 8 is lower than my guess of the steady state rate.

So far, it is all just theory and a WAG (wild-a.. guess, as they say in Texas) about the average stay at the College — but I don’t think my number is crazy. For an empirical observation, consider the number of tenure-track searches that had been approved last summer. My recollection is that the number was around 12 or 13. Unless the College was still in “expand-the-faculty” mode, these searches should have been roughly replacement hiring. I thought the expansion was done but I could be wrong.

If asked for my advice, I would suggest the College design a plan about the size of the faculty over the next decade and how to carry it out. One plan is no change in faculty size. Another is a slight reduction in faculty size (e.g., say 10% accomplished by slowing down replacement hiring). If the number of faculty is to shrink, then the plan needs to specify how things play out (e.g., a modest increase in average class size and/or a modest change in teaching loads).

Look, I expect we might agree on more of this than you want to portray — you seem to like to argue. I just have a different perspective on the number. Plus, you want to think on a 3-year horizon and I want to think about 5-10 years.