August 25, 2010

Math Faculty Outraged by Cuts

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In past years, Math 1710, Math 1910 and Math 1920 were each spread across multiple lectures that rarely exceeded 30 students. This year, with 35 lectures in the Math department eliminated, Math 1710 nearly tripled in size; Math 1910 swelled to one 94-student lecture; and Math 1920 was coalesced into a 138-student classroom.          With Cornell’s Math department eliminating four of its seven assistant professor positions — post-doctorates who teach undergraduates and conduct research — many professors are fretting not only over dramatically increased class sizes, but the future of math at Cornell.          Prof. Tara Holm, math, said that the reduction of the postdoc program would “cripple” both the department’s ability to hire and its research opportunities. Prof. Robert Strichartz, math, explained that the cutback was “very bad” for students. Prof. Anil Nerode, math, in his fifty-first year at Cornell, said he worried that, without “young blood,” the Cornell math department has a serious “aging problem.”Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Walter Cohen –– who headed a group that decided on the department’s cuts –– defended the reductions, saying that although cuts to the math department were “above-average,” the severity of the cuts was “certainly not an outlier … [and] certainly not the largest in the college, or even the second largest.”Cohen insisted that cuts to the postdoc program “must be balanced against the fact that [the department took] no professorial cuts,” even though many other departments “saw reductions in their professorial staff.”Yet some math professors said that their department is inequitably bearing the brunt of University-wide budget cuts.Given the difficulty of firing tenured professors, departments with large non-tenured staff were “disproportionately” affected by the administration’s budget cuts, according to Prof. Richard Shore, math.            Still, Shore believes the administration “didn’t have a lot of choices,” and hopes the administration views the cuts as “emergency measures.”In August, Holm penned an email to the administration saying the cuts would put the math department at a “serious disadvantage” compared to its rival schools. She wrote that although Cornell is currently ranked 15 in the National Research Council’s ranking of post-doctoral programs, the cuts “would make our department look like one at a small university with no more than a master’s program … ranking in the high 100s by the NRC.”The cuts put Cornell’s math post-doctorate program “well below normal for top Universities,” said Prof. Martin Kassabov, math.Cohen admitted that, at first, the administration “didn’t understand the post-doctorate program well enough,” but said that he does not know what else it could have cut in the math department. He said the University is now “committed to building it [the post-doctorate program] up again.”Cohen assured that the University “consider[s] math to be crucial to the future well-being of the University.”Department Chair Prof. Laurent Saloff-Coste, math, agreed that the cuts to the math department were “in line” with cuts across the College of Arts and Sciences and emphasized that the cuts were part of a “long discussion” with the dean’s office and that the post-doctorate program would only “improve in the future.”Other members of the math department were less optimistic — and less forgiving.  “The University is not as supportive of the math department as other comparable universities are,” Prof. Edward Swartz, math, said.Michelle Klinger, teaching program coordinator of the math department, said that the “perception in the department is that [math] is being hit harder than everyone else.”Holm agreed, accusing the dean’s office of “wanting to obliterate” the postdoc program.  She also said the administration “waited [until] very late” to give the department news of the cuts, “so [the] department didn’t have enough time to respond.” In her August e-mail to the administration, Holm identified the “adversarial relationship” and “disdain” the math department “seems to be facing from the dean’s office and the College.”  “I do not see how I could encourage … any job candidate to consider Cornell,” she wrote.Cohen, however, disagreed with Holm’s assessment that the math department was targeted anymore than other departments when budget decisions were being made, arguing that the department’s discretionary funding would remain “in line with other departments” when everything was said and done.“[There] have been cuts in most departments, [it’s] not obvious why math should be exempt,” Cohen said.He added that the administration has always valued its math department, citing the fact that the department’s discretionary funding was far greater than most others before the crisis began.Wednesday, postdoc Frank Moore began teaching Math 1910 — calculus for engineers — again. Except this year, with over an additional 100 students in his lecture, Moore does not expect to be able to work closely with his students.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first names of Prof. Edward Swartz and Prof. Robert Strichartz.

Original Author: Jeff Stein