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Figures Don’t Lie… #2: The S/F Ratio is a Misleading Statistic

In his Tenth Annual Report to the General Faculty in 2007, President James Wright said:

The FTE of A&S faculty has grown from 380 to 430 over the past decade. In terms of authorized tenure-track positions the numbers have gone from 352 to 411. This has allowed us to reduce the student-faculty ratio down to 8 to 1 today. This is the US News and World Report calculation and according to them we have come down from 12:1 in 1997-98. This is at best a marginally useful comparative metric - for it is also a misleading one. It calculates the ratio based on total teaching faculty and total student enrollment.

For once, I agree with President Wright. The student:faculty ratio statistic is “at best marginally useful” and “misleading”. SO WHY DOES THE COLLEGE KEEP USING IT!?! In fact, the two statistical performance measurements most widely trumpeted by the former administration were the reduction in the student:faculty ratio and the change in the number of <20-student courses at the College (another bad stat that we will look at in the future).

Let’s leave aside the fact that President Wright chose the 1997-1998 figure as his basis of comparison — the worst figure over the last two decades; we should concentrate on the nature of the student:faculty ratio itself. The ratio is based on the proportion of FTE (full-time equivalent) students to FTE faculty. However, no distinction is made as to types of professors (tenured, tenure-track, adjunct, visiting), or how much they actually teach. Examine the following universities:

Stats.gifUniversity: A
Students: 1,000
Tenured/Track Faculty: 75
Adjunct Faculty: 25
Student:Faculty Ratio: 10:1

University: B
Students: 1,000
Tenured/Track Faculty: 25
Adjunct Faculty: 75
Student:Faculty Ratio: 10:1

Both have the same student:faculty ratio, even though university B has a far higher proportion of short-term adjunct faculty — professors who did not meet the standard needed to become tenured or tenure-track faculty members.

The above calculation does not vary even if the tenured faculty members teach only one or two courses per year (and spend most of their time doing research), and adjunct faculty teach five or six courses each year. Nor does the figure change if one school offers many more courses in total than another. The metric is not actual teaching, just the existence of faculty members of whatever type.

However, from a student perspective, the difference is quite large, don’t you think?

So, for example, when the teaching requirement for all Dartmouth profs dropped from five courses/year to four courses/year in the early 1990’s, this shift did not change the College’s student:faculty ratio at all. Same thing when Dartmouth’s science faculty had their annual teaching load reduced from four courses to three about six years ago. And there was no change in the ratio over the past decade as the proportion of adjunct professors at the College soared.

So the next time you wonder why it is tough to get into the classes that you want, or why your adjunct professors aren’t quite the “leaders in their fields” that you and your parents had been expecting, don’t let the Adminstration bamboozle you by citing the positive evolution of Dartmouth’s student:faculty ratio.

And President Kim, I hope that you will agree that this metric is not worthy of use by an anthropologist.

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