August 26, 2010

Letter to the Editor: Editorial on Math Cuts Off-Base

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To the Editor:

Re: “Scrapping the Plan Already?” Opinion, Aug. 26

I am compelled to respond to yesterday’s editorial because its main assertions about budget reductions in the math department contradict what actually happened.The editorial is deeply flawed because it confuses two different types of assistant professor. One is tenure-track assistant professors — top young researchers and teachers in a field whom we recruit with the hope that they will successfully achieve tenure and join the ranks of our superb permanent faculty. The quality of our teaching and research, and our future reputation, will be determined by these hires. Not a single tenure-track assistant professor in math or any other Arts and Sciences department lost his or her position as a result of the financial crisis. Last fall, I met with tenure-track assistant professors from across the college to assure them that their positions and their prospects for tenure would be protected from budget-related actions.   The other kind of assistant professor is the visiting assistant professor or postdoctoral assistant professor. These are people hired into temporary positions, for one to three years, to help teach mostly introductory courses.The Mathematics Department has relied much more heavily upon this kind of short-term instruction than any other department in the college. In order to meet its budget target, we determined that Math reduce the number of its postdoctoral (temporary) assistant professor positions as they became vacant and eliminate its very costly visitors program. The money saved on those salaries allowed math to realize its share of the College’s budget reduction.  Math remains one of Cornell’s largest departments.    The editorial asserts that the College’s actions go against two of the university’s Strategic Planning Initiative goals: recruiting and retaining young faculty, and identifying and bolstering excellent departments. The reality is that, unlike other Arts and Sciences departments, math has not given up any tenure-track faculty lines during the last two years.  By far, the one action that will have the greatest impact on preserving the excellence of Cornell’s liberal arts is strategic investment in our (permanent) faculty. The College of Arts and Sciences was a small liberal arts college, relative to our peers, even before we had to give up five percent of our faculty lines in the financial crisis. Our departments are among the most highly ranked in the country.  In order for them to remain competitive, we must maintain our tenure-track faculty size while dealing with a record number of retirements in the near future. Because math has a disproportionately large percentage of older faculty members, the department has much to gain through hiring new tenure-track assistant professors during this period.      Contrary to the editorial’s conclusion, the budget decisions in Arts and Sciences are purposefully aligned with the goals of the Strategic Planning Initiative. After two years of substantial budget reductions, we are increasingly determined to focus our resources on hiring more great professors into our permanent faculty who will contribute to our continued excellence and who will teach undergraduates. Getting ahead of the impending retirements in order to replace large numbers of faculty with equally good faculty is the most critical challenge I face as dean.

G. Peter Lepage,  dean of the College of Arts and Sciences