The number of full-time faculty members at Pierce College is declining. As full-time instructors leave and their positions are left unfilled, the college is relying more heavily on part-time faculty to teach students.
“Over the last three years we have gone through significant budget cuts to higher education in general and to Pierce College in particular,” Executive Vice President Bill McMeekin said. “Because full-time faculty are more expensive than part-time we have not replaced faculty vacancies at the rate we would like.”
At a Jan. 15 Board of Trustees meeting, Pierce College professor and union spokesperson John Lucas presented his case for the need to halt the steady decline of full-time faculty members. Lucas cited a study by Ronald Ehrenberg and Liang Zhang, which shows a correlation between the decrease in full-time faculty and student graduation rates. In the study, researchers found that for every 10 percent decline in full-time instructors, there’s a 3 percent decline in student graduation rates. Within the past year, 19 full-time faculty positions at Pierce have been left unfilled, which is greater than a 10 percent decline. Lucas estimates that this translates to about 100 Pierce students not graduating that otherwise would have.
In addition to full-time instructors’ role in student graduation, they also play a significant role in the framework of the college. They serve as advisors to students, help make up the necessary committees in the district’s shared governance process and keep curriculums updated. These are functions the college administration depends on full-time faculty to do that part-time faculty can’t replace.
“Without the full-time faculty, programs start to fall apart,” Lucas said. “Losing them makes it more difficult to maintain education and service to students.”
Full-time faculty members aren’t being fired; they’re simply not being replaced when they leave. This has been a cause for concern among some instructors who are nearing retirement but don’t want to leave behind an unfilled position among the full-time faculty member’s ranks. Legal studies instructor Doug Jensen is one of these instructors.
“The recent pattern during these times of fiscal austerity has been that when those replacements do not occur immediately they tend to occur, if at all, only after several years,” Jensen said.
Jensen and nine other full-time faculty members wrote a letter to administration voicing their concerns. In response, administration agreed to replace any full-time faculty member that announced their retirement by Dec. 16.
“Ideally we would like to have many more full-time faculty than we currently have and get back to the number we had before these debilitating cuts to higher education began,” McMeekin said.
Based on a survey of 30 local colleges called the Academic Year Report, 47 percent of classes at Pierce are taught by full-time teachers. This makes Pierce have the fifth lowest percentage of classes taught by full-time teachers. In addition, Pierce was ranked 27 out of 30 local community colleges for number of students per full time faculty teacher. Basically, Pierce has fewer classes being taught by full-time faculty and more students per full-time teacher than many surrounding colleges.
In many cases, the student to teacher ratio at Pierce can be explained by teachers overloading students into their classes. However, the 128 online courses at Pierce tend to have fewer students than on-campus classes.
“The caps for online courses are actually lower than that for most campus sections,” Director of eLearning Edward Bachmann said. “English and language classes have a cap of 24 which is the same as on-campus sections. Most faculty allow overloads, so frequently the enrollment exceeds the cap set in the registration system.”
Administration and faculty continue to work on ways to raise the number of full time faculty, but with more budget cuts on the way, McMeekin says that the administration can make no promises.
The Puyallup Post is the award-winning student news of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2017. Twitter/Instagram @puyalluppost
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