Undergraduate education and research

The following opinion piece by Ben Novak appeared in the Centre Daily Times on April 14, 1996 under the headline “Undergrads suffer at hands of research”, addressing the relationship between Penn State’s commitments to undergraduate education and research. A January 1996 letter from Ben Novak to President Graham Spanier also addresses this topic.

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While Penn State has been increasing its research component to become one of the highest-ranked public research universities, what has been happening to undergraduate education at Penn State? This is one of the issues that has only been whispered in the halls and stairways. But the facts in terms of funding for undergraduate education are finally coming out.

The 1994 Report of the Special Committee on Faculty Workload and Accomplishment highlighted the facts about the impact that subsidizing research out of state appropriations has had on funding for undergraduate studies. The report notes that in the 15 years from 1978 to 1993, the following increases occurred:

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 15 percent
  • Graduate enrollment: 65 percent
  • Research expenditures: 338 percent
  • Full-time faculty: 9 percent

These figures show that the increase in faculty has fallen far behind the increases in enrollments in both undergraduates and graduate students. The figures show that a mere 9 percent increase in faculty has had to cope with 15 percent more undergraduates, 65 percent more graduate students, and still find time to do more than three times as much research as was done before.

What have these figures meant for the students? The most frequent complaint of undergraduates is huge class sizes. Many students attend multiple classes containing 100 to 1,000 students, and many complain that thy never get to meet a professor.

The fact is that the only way that these increases could have been met was to follow the following five steps:

  1. Admit more students
  2. Increase class sizes tremendously.
  3. Decrease the number of professors per student.
  4. Use graduate students to do the teaching.
  5. Shift professors’ time from teaching to research.

This, of course, is precisely what has happened at Penn State from 1978 to 1993.

I am not alone in searching for the number to prove what has been taking place. Former Faculty Senate Chairman Donald Rung also has been spending free time trying to establish the facts to explain what we all know to be true.

Rung, a professor of mathematics who has been with the university since 1961, has compiled data back to 1970 to compare student-teacher ratios. His figures show that the number of students per teacher at University Park has increased from 11 to 1 in 1970 to 16 to 1 in 1992, an increase of 45 percent. If one uses nationally recognized “weightings” to account for the increased time required by upper division and graduate students, then the student-to-teacher ratio at University Park has increased from 20 to 1 to 33 to 1, an increase of 65 percent. Thus, class sizes have increased from 45 to 65 percent in 22 years.

Professor Rung estimates that just to achieve the same ratio of students to faculty that prevailed in 1970, Penn State would have to add 750 faculty members at University Park, and 300 faculty members at the commonwealth campuses. Thus, Penn State needs a total of 1,050 new faculty members to recapture its former excellence in teaching. 

Professor Rung states that “I have no doubt that we cannot offer a quality undergraduate education with the current number of faculty. It is not possible to continue to reduce faculty members and maintain the integrity of the academic process. We are past the threshold.”

The result, according to Rung: “If we continue with this faculty shortfall, the undergraduate degree will be devalued in 10 to 15 years, and it will take 30 years to recapture our 1970 position.”

The task of adequately funding undergraduate teaching and hiring more teaching faculty is the greatest challenge Penn State is facing. For the next several years, the issue of improving undergraduate education will have to be the most important item on agendas for Penn State.

Ben Novak is a State College attorney and a member of Penn State’s Board of Trustees.