Middle States Report


Role & Quality of the Faculty

The University recognizes that the quality of academic programs depends on the quality of the faculty. SUNY Albany can be proud of its rating in the 1997 Graham-Diamond study, The Rise of American Research Universities, which ranks the University 17th in research and scholarship among the nation's top public universities and 11th among those identified as rising public institutions. It has a strong national reputation in several fields, particularly in the social sciences, and good reputations in others. In fact, the Graham-Diamond study ranks the University's social science programs seventh nationally in Federal research-and-development funding per faculty member, and ninth nationally in quality of faculty publications. Most notable are the large and widely acclaimed programs in psychology and sociology, many of whose faculty members are leaders in their disciplines and whose doctoral students are highly competitive in the academic market. The team commends the University for a remarkable improvement in its scholarly and research productivity and for its plans for further progress.

Teaching & Research

The University at Albany is clear about its ambitions: to be reclassified in the Carnegie classification scheme from Research II to Research I. More ambitiously, the University aspires to admission to the even more select circle of research institutions comprising the Association of American Universities. One obvious concern raised by these issues is whether the University can move in these directions without undermining its concomitant commitment to effective teaching. That is to say, can the University improve its research capacity without trading off its commitment to teaching and learning.

Several indicators suggest that the University is indeed maintaining, even enhancing, its commitment to teaching. The Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning is one such indicator of new resources dedicated to effective teaching. There appears to be, as well, a widespread perception that the value attached to teaching is not suffering as the campus dedicates itself to the pursuit of research excellence. Faculty, Deans, and Department Chairs suggest that among the criteria for retention, tenure and promotion, the importance attached to teaching has not diminished, but rather may even have increased. The Team urges the University to continue to ensure that commitment.

Faculty Shrinkage

The decade of the 1990s was a period of financial stringency for the University, as manifested most visibly and problematically in the shrinkage of the faculty. From 1990 through 1998, 128 full-time faculty positions were lost through attrition, 18% of the University's faculty base. These cuts fell heavily on certain programs (Chemistry, Communication, Economics, English, and Physics) while bypassing others altogether. They were especially marked at the junior faculty ranks, as the number of Assistant Professors fell by 39%. This trend was arrested at the end of the decade, when positions began to be filled at a rate beyond simple replacement, but the net number of positions thus restored still left the University 101 faculty positions short of where it had been a decade earlier.

This sharp decline in the size of the faculty was not paralleled by a dropoff in student enrollment; enrollments dipped during the decade, but by the end of the 1990s, they returned to approximately their prior level. As a consequence, a stable student population is now being served by a substantially smaller faculty. The good news is that the institution has not responded by increasing class sizes or increasing the number of courses faculty members are expected to teach. Indeed, the size of a typical undergraduate class was lower, on average, in 1998 than it had been in 1990 (approximately 41 students in 1998, down from approximately 46 in 1990), and no attempt was made to boost teaching loads. The bad news is that these outcomes were averted largely through greater reliance on part-time instructors and teaching assistants to teach undergraduate courses. In 1990, full-time regular faculty taught 65% of total undergraduate credit hours, but by 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available, this figure had fallen to 55%. By contrast, part-time faculty were responsible for 27% in 1990, but 34% in 1998; and the counterpart figures for teaching assistants were 8% and 11%, respectively. Especially hard hit have been upper-division courses, where undergraduate credit hours attributable to regular full-time faculty declined from 78% of the total in 1990 to 59% in 1998; here the slack has been covered almost entirely by part-timers, whose share of student credit hours has risen from 21% to 37%. In some cases, course offerings have had to be restricted, making it more difficult for students to complete degree requirements in a timely manner. Moreover, several departments now enforce major caps of various types (e.g., minimum grade-point averages and absolute limitations on the number of majors permitted). Resource shortages have also prevented some departments that offer large-enrollment introductory courses (which collectively account for almost 11% of all Undergraduate class sections) from scheduling discussion sections for these courses; thus, students are being introduced to popular fields of study purely in a lecture format, with fewer opportunities for faculty-student or student-student interaction, follow-ups on points made in lecture, and so on. It has also proven difficult or impossible in some programs (e.g., Geography) to take advantage of computer laboratories and facilities for instructional purposes because of the large size of a class and the inability to break out into sections.

The University is to be commended for its emphasis on distinctiveness and strategic investments in faculty and academic programs. Despite major faculty losses during the l990s, the campus has begun to experience a reversal of this trend. In fact, a year ago, there was a net gain of more than 20 faculty positions. The Team recommends that the University work with the SUNY System to focus on funding faculty positions in order to restore faculty strength. No less important, the Team also recommends that the campus work to ensure that positions are strategically targeted in response to both research and teaching needs so that appropriate choices are made between replacing faculty on the one hand and hiring faculty to pursue exciting new initiatives on the other.

Graduate Student Stipends

One critical component of research capability relates to the strength of graduate education. A particular area of concern among faculty, administrators, and students is the inadequacy of the graduate student support budget. The University gives academic programs considerable leeway in setting stipend levels by allocating a certain number of dollars to a program rather than a certain number of assistantships. In practice, though, this flexibility is highly constrained by the insufficiency of the funds that are allocated to the programs, in combination with the needs to staff undergraduate courses and to support an appropriate number of graduate students. In many programs, including some of the most prominent ones in the University, graduate stipends fall several thousand dollars below those offered by competing institutions. To try to maintain their graduate student numbers, some programs split assistantships, and the normal practice is to fund students for no more than three or four years, if that. The consequences are both obvious and deleterious. Programs consistently find themselves unable to compete successfully for top applicants. A number of the students who do enroll as graduate students must assume considerable debt in order to support themselves — either to supplement the meager stipends they have been awarded or, for those who have exhausted their eligibility or who were never provided with support in the first place, to cover tuition costs and living expenses. Many students who would have preferred to devote full attention to their studies must take on part-time or full-time employment to make ends meet, thereby prolonging the time they spend pursuing a degree. Graduate students suffer, and so does programmatic quality. To maintain the national and international prominence of its leading graduate programs and the viability of the rest, and to foster a better teaching and learning environment for both undergraduate and graduate students, the Team recommends that the University provide substantial enhancement to the graduate student support budget.

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