When Jill Ogline enrolled in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the fall of 2001, the history department offered a small but solid core of modern American scholars. She looked forward to close, lasting relationships with the professors who would teach her classes and guide her research. One day, she imagined, they would write her recommendations.
Three and a half years later, Ogline's education is lonelier than she expected. Three of the four professors in her research area have left the university, and the fourth became department chairman, limiting his teaching role. A temporary professor filled in for a year, but later left UMass to seek a permanent job.
Forced to move ahead without a steady mentor, Ogline has completed a dozen graduate courses. Fully half have been independent studies, undertaken on her own, with limited oversight often provided by professors outside her department.
"There just aren't enough faculty to teach the courses students need," she said.
The decline in permanent, full-time professors at UMass-Amherst, accompanied by increased numbers of temporary and part-time teachers, echoes a national trend on college campuses. Nationwide, the number of full-time, temporary faculty grew by one-third from 1998 to 2001, and almost half of all college faculty are now part-time or "contingent" teachers, according to the American Association of University Professors.
A cost-saving measure -- temporary professors earn lower pay, work year to year, and often shuttle between campuses -- the hiring shift has been widely criticized for diminishing research and student-teacher interaction while creating an academic underclass with no office hours, benefits, or job security.
"It's changing the nature of higher education, because the faculty member isn't there [after class] to talk to you," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 130,000 professors, college staff members, and graduate student employees. "A lot of what people learn in college is in informal conversations with peers and teachers. So students are getting less, but no one's giving them a break on tuition."
In Massachusetts, while enrollment has held steady at the state's flagship campus, it has lost almost 200 permanent, full-time professors in the last decade. This 19-percent decline in tenured and tenure-track faculty has damaged educational quality and threatens the university's reputation, according to faculty union leaders. Last week, they launched a campaign to educate the public about the changes, and challenged university trustees to join them.
"We have to begin to recognize what's happening, and what it does to our ability to serve students," UMass-Amherst sociology professor Dan Clawson told trustees at their quarterly meeting last week.
The president of the professors' union on campus, Clawson delivered copies of a new, 50-page report on the shrinking faculty to the Board of Trustees last Wednesday, and challenged board members to commit to rebuilding the faculty. "With you or without you, the faculty is going to keep pushing," he said. Professors made the same pitch at a State House press conference later that day.
University leaders have spoken hopefully in recent months of a financial turnaround: After a three-year, $150 million reduction in state funding across the five-campus system, the budget is smaller but stable, and there are signs of gathering support for higher education in the Legislature.
Among some UMass trustees and administrators, there is concern that the faculty's campaign will do more harm than good, by planting seeds of doubt about the university's quality, and alienating legislators who view the complaints as out-of-touch with fiscal reality. But UMass system President Jack Wilson and Amherst campus Chancellor John V. Lombardi both acknowledged last week that more permanent replacements are needed.
"The last few years . . . we had to take actions we didn't want to take," Wilson said at the trustees' meeting. "The good news is, we're on our way back." Adding faculty is "one of the things we need to do," he said.
Lombardi said hiring is hindered by the urgent need to repair aging buildings on campus -- a budget burden not shared by campuses in some other states, where upkeep is often covered by separate state appropriations. The chancellor's budget plan for next year includes $1.5 million to add 20 new full-time faculty positions and more than $30 million to repair and renovate buildings and pay down capital debts.
"The truth is that to succeed in national competition, we have to have a larger faculty," Lombardi said. "At the time when we were more nationally competitive than we are now, we had 200 to 300 more professors."
UMass-Amherst had 1,215 tenured and tenure-track professors and about 23,000 students in the mid-1980s, according to the union and the administration. The permanent faculty declined to 1,063 by 1995. This year, after budget cuts and two rounds of early retirement bonuses designed to shrink the state payroll, the school has 865 permanent faculty and 20,500 students. The pool of temporary teachers grew from 131 to 220 full-time equivalents in the last decade. When graduate students who teach classes are included, 30 percent of UMass teachers are temporary employees, and they provide 40 percent of all campus instruction, said union leaders.
Shifts have been similar, if less drastic, at other UMass branches. The tenured and tenure-track faculty on the Dartmouth campus declined by just 10 positions, to 302 professors, in the last decade, a spokesman said.
To cope with a 30-percent enrollment increase in the same period, the school doubled the number of full- and part-time teachers hired outside the tenure system, to the equivalent of about 130 full-time positions. At UMass-Boston, the tenure-system faculty shrank 15 percent in 10 years, to 368 professors, while the part-time teaching staff grew to 390 positions.
As similar changes have been made across the country, raising concerns about quality, some states have studied campus hiring patterns, said Horwitz, and a few are trying to buck the trend. Three years ago, leaders of California's state university system drafted a plan to boost tenure-system hires from half to three-quarters of the faculty.
Elsewhere, temporary teachers have formed unions to demand better conditions. Part-timers who teach several courses at the City University of New York now receive extra pay to hold office hours for students.
UMass-Amherst students said the faculty decline has meant fewer course offerings and larger classes, less access to experienced advisers, and in some cases, delays in graduation.
Studies have shown that students who develop relationships with professors are more likely to stay in school. Because the university's reputation rests on research and writing by its core faculty, the shifts also risk the school's national standing, said some professors.
Pavel Payano, a junior from Lawrence, said he has learned to show up for large classes 15 minutes early "because if I didn't, I definitely wouldn't see the teacher."
Elvis Mendez, a freshman from Framingham, said all four of his classes this semester have more than 200 students; he was unable to take a fifth course because every one he tried to sign up for was full. "I only know two professors by name," he said.
For Ogline and other graduate students, the fundamental nature of their studies has been altered. Instead of debating ideas around a seminar table with classmates and over coffee with scholarly mentors, "you really grapple with the ideas yourself," she said. "It's not the same." If the decline continues, UMass will lose its luster for top graduate students, she said.
As the students spoke last week in a State House hearing room, the handful of legislators listening included Senator Robert O'Leary, a Barnstable Democrat, former professor, and co-chairman of the Legislature's new Higher Education Committee. The committee, which will help determine future funding for public campuses, is considered evidence of lawmakers' heightened interest in higher education.
"There's a tipping point at which an institution starts to lose the critical mass of full-time faculty that makes it a university experience," O'Leary told the assembled students and professors. "I think we moved the public [system] over that tipping point, and I think that's why we're here today."
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.