Friend of the University of Rochester
President Thomas H. Jackson
University of Rochester
Rochester, New York 14627
Dear President Jackson:
I write to add my voice to the chorus of concern regarding the fate of Rochester's mathematics department. Others have written to address the centrality of mathematics to the sciences, the dangers of relying too heavily on various rankings for making internal judgments, and the anomalous status that Rochester would have were it to dismantle the mathematics graduate program - a status that will unquestionably weaken Rochester's reputation. I will not reiterate those arguments, though I believe they are powerful and correct. Rather, I want to address the issue of mathematics instruction. My considered judgment is that, despite your best intentions, your plan for restructuring will inevitably worsen the quality of undergraduate mathematics instruction at Rochester.
The current plan calls for reducing the size of the mathematics faculty to about 10, and handling the large instructional load, particularly in calculus, by means of non-research (adjunct) faculty and/or the redirection of other qualified faculty from other disciplines. This is a recipe for disaster. Here are the two main reasons why.
First, such a plan is likely to result in the complete demoralization of the department's faculty. The best researchers will leave, because they can and because the environment is clearly not hospitable to a major aspect of their professional lives. The rest will find themselves second class citizens, because - no matter what the rhetoric - the University is in effect telling them "we define your primary if not exclusive role as that of teacher, while the rest of us define ourselves as researchers and teachers. Moreover, your teaching role isn't especially valued, since we're farming out a large part of it to adjuncts and/or members of other departments." There is no way that you can hope to maintain a dedicated mathematics teaching faculty under those conditions. High quality teaching takes place only where it is a widely shared priority, and people are respected for it.
Second, there are very serious dangers in placing calculus instruction in the hands of others. After many years of stagnation the undergraduate mathematics curriculum, stimulated by "calculus reform," is undergoing a significant transformation. That reform has come from within the mathematical community, and is rapidly taking hold within it. Keeping abreast of such changes - in particular, major pedagogical and content changes in calculus - requires being connected to the mathematical community. Creating and delivering instruction consonant with reform requires both knowledge and commitment. The odds that faculty from other departments would (a) know about such reforms, (b) be willing to make the effort required to implement such changes in service courses outside their home departments, are virtually nil. Hence, even if you were to take the high road and make use of faculty from other departments, Rochester's students would almost certainly receive mathematics instruction that is increasingly becoming obsolete and inadequate. And if you take the low road, using adjuncts and temporary faculty, the problems would be far worse. One of my responsibilities as chair of the Mathematical Association of America's Committee on the Teaching of Undergraduate Mathematics was gathering data on and trying to fix the "adjunct/temporary instruction problem" in mathematics. I'll be blunt in summary: such instruction is typically cheap, and you get what you pay for. A major instructional and administrative commitment is required to make appropriate use of such staff under the best of circumstances. Expecting temporaries and adjuncts to keep pace with a rapidly changing curriculum that requires significant effort and coordination is ridiculous. I conclude that the changes you propose are almost certain to produce a significant lowering of the quality of instruction in mathematics courses - no matter how you staff those courses. This is the direct opposite of what you intend.
I want to close on a personal note. I was a member of the Rochester faculty in the early 1980s, and I have warm feelings for the University. I was pleased to see that you have a strong plan for renewal, for it will most likely undo some of the damage done by the indecisiveness of the previous administration. I am sympathetic to the idea of prioritizing. I know such decisions are hard and that some departments must lose in order for the institution to gain. In this case, however, it is not only the department that loses - the institution does too. Hence I hope you will continue the prioritization plan, but reverse this particular decision. It's in your best interests to do so.
Alan H. Schoenfeld
Professor of Education and Mathematics