September 28, 2011

Math Department Hires Postdocs After 2009 Cuts

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The Department of Mathematics hired two postdoctorates last year and is looking to hire two more this semester after its decision to eliminate four of seven original positions in 2009 sparked outrage among some faculty members.

In order to hire the two post-doctorates, however, the department agreed not to replace the next tenured professor who retires, according to Prof. Lars Wahlbin, math, and director of undergraduate studies for the department.

Wahlbin also said the math department “will not try to trade a permanent faculty member for postdocs in the future.”

Department Chair Prof. Laurent Saloff-Coste, math, called the new hires “a pretty small step forward” toward its goal of having 10 postdocs on staff. Still, he said there have been “good signs” of an improved budget, and that, in line with the rest of the University, the math department hopes to grow the size of its faculty.

Prof. Tara Holm, math, echoed some of Saloff-Coste’s sentiments, but expressed skepticism about the significance of the new hires.

“[Administrators] have said that they understand that we need postdocs, but the compromise has not been much of a compromise,” she said. “The deans have been very supportive in words, but not in opening purse strings.”

Holm said she fears that “the postdoc cuts were severe enough to impact the department long-term.” Although supportive of the decision, Holm said the hires would not do enough to make up for the recent cuts.

“Once major universities begin hiring, Cornell will have trouble competing,” she said.

Saloff-Coste, however, said he is optimistic about the department’s future. The math department has received “very strong support from the college this past year,” he said.

Prof. Benjamin Steinhurst, math, is similarly optimistic.

“Postdocs as a class are fairly transient, so a short blip with fewer postdocs is recoverable,” he said. “It just depends on how long the blip lasts.”

Steinhurst did, however, note that “once you get a reputation for too small a postdoc program, postdocs will stop applying.”

Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Walter Cohen –– who headed a group that decided on the department’s cuts –– told The Sun last fall that the severity of the cuts was “certainly not an outlier … [and] certainly not the largest in the college, or even the second largest.”

Postdoctorates are assistant professors who teach undergraduate classes and conduct research in the department.

Saloff-Coste said that, to cut costs, some math faculty have begun instructing classes previously taught by postdocs.

He emphasized that this was because the department “did not want to put all of the weight [of the budget cuts] onto freshmen,” though some introductory-level classes have exploded in size.

From Fall 2008 to Fall 2011, Math 1710, an introductory statistics course, has almost tripled in size, from 25 students to 65 students. Meanwhile, Math 1910: Calculus for Engineers and Math 1920: Multivariable Calculus for Engineers have, on average, both added close to 100 students, more than quadrupling in size.

Saloff-Coste, however, said that these introductory classes have improved as a result of increased class size. The class consolidations allow the classes “to be taught by tenure-track professors — better teachers with a better result.”

Steinhurst said that the “department spent enough energy to make sure no one got hurt too hard.”

Saloff-Coste, Hold and Steinhurst agreed that a diminished postdoctorate program hurts the department’s prestige.

“All top [mathematics] departments have very good, very strong postdoctorate programs. Weaker departments have weaker postdoc programs,” Saloff-Coste said. “Young people are very important in math … They bring outside knowledge into the department … [which] is very important to the scientific life of the tenured faculty.”

Holm said that it was essential for the department to restore its postdoc program.

“Postdocs come with a huge amount of energy and knowledge,” she said. “[Postdocs] make the research atmosphere thrive.”

While Steinhurst said he does believe that postdocs are integral to the math department’s research, he remains uncertain about the long term effects of the diminished postdoc program.

“[The outrage] was mostly about how the rest of the department campus saw the department,” he said. “I worry other departments don’t understand what postdocs do in the mathematics deparment.”

He added that postdocs “cross-pollinate research — bringing ideas from where they were graduate students to Cornell and carrying ideas out of Cornell when they leave.”

Original Author: Justin Rouillier