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Principia no longer offers a sociology major. This administrative decision has been unpopular. Sophomore Emma Halsey said, “I am really disappointed that the SOAN major is not being offered any longer. It is an important major for a liberal arts college.”
Sophomore Logan Landry took action when she heard that the major was ending. She said, “I made a petition… I got 36 people that were interested. [Then] I met with [Academic Dean] Joe Ritter.” However, by the time Landry met with Ritter, the decision had been set in stone.
Sociology majors that declared before the fall 2015 semester will be able to finish their course of study. Landry was one of several students who had wanted to declare, but missed the window of opportunity. Instead, she plans to take the still-available sociology minor, as well as the sociology track in the global studies major.
The difference? Global studies has a broader focus, encompassing issues like the environment, poverty, and education, while sociology focuses only on social structures. Landry said, “Personally, I don’t think it is the same. I think there should still be a [sociology] major.”
To Landry, the sociology major was more than just an academic area of focus. “[The class] ‘Race’ and Ethnicity really changed my life and my perspective on everything. It was eye-opening, especially [for] me, a white, middle-class [person]. I’ve grown up pretty protected and you just don’t know what goes on in the world until you learn about it… It’s really good for people to [take sociology courses] in college, because you don’t really get that in education before college,” Landry said.
Senior Deanna Scheck agreed. She said, “The SOAN major has been a huge part of my life… It pushes you to think critically, it opens your eyes, and [it] broadens your perspective.” Sophomore Ashley Shoemake added, “I’m majoring in education… and the role that sociology plays in that is huge. I’m seeing the connections every time I take a sociology class. I think that the social aspect of education is the most important aspect.”
Students were not the only upset party. Some faculty were unhappy with the loss of the major as well as critical of the overall process, particularly the way in which it was communicated. Students agreed; junior Juliette Roy said, “I wish the school would be more transparent about these large decisions… It [seemed] a little strange that they tagged it on the end of an email, instead of announcing it.”
Sociology plays an important part in many careers. Scheck said, “I plan on using what I’ve learned from sociology/anthropology in the field of law enforcement.” Shoemake said that her father works at McKinley Children’s Center and values his undergraduate sociology degree for its practical applicability. Roy said, “[The sociology major is] interesting and necessary because [it is] relevant to our everyday lives.”
The administration agrees with these sentiments, despite their decision to end the major. Ritter said, “No one celebrates [losing a major]. That’s not something we wanted to do. It’s disappointing.” A part of the reasoning, Ritter said, “was [about] the numbers.”
Principia is an extremely small college with enrollment in the 460s. Because of this, the number of faculty that Principia can have at one time is fixed. “It’s a zero-sum game,” said Ritter.
For a long time, each department had a set number of faculty positions. If a department had four faculty members, and one left, it was simply a matter of filling the empty spot. However, departments eventually began to request different numbers of faculty. This created a problem—if one department wanted to add another faculty member, that position, or full-time equivalent (FTE), needed to come from another department. Because of this flux in numbers between departments, there needed to be a standardized way to decide how many FTEs each department got.
Enter the FTE allocation process. Over the past couple of years, external reviewers from other comparable schools have been brought in to evaluate academic departments. Also, the faculty members of the department under review write an evaluation of their own department. Ritter said, “Up until five years ago, we didn’t have [the FTE allocation] process. Since then, we’ve done a program review with essentially all of our academic programs.”
This review process is partially transparent. The template for the departmental self-reflection is available on the dean’s website, but the filled-out forms are not available to be read, and external reviewers sign confidentiality agreements with Principia.
Both the faculty evaluations and the reviewer’s feedback from all reviewed departments are turned in to the Faculty Leadership Team (FLT). The FLT is a committee comprised of the college president, the two academic deans, the director of special academic programs (a faculty member), four academic unit heads, seven faculty council members, and an academic staff liaison. This means that there are 11 faculty members on the FLT that weigh in on administrative decisions.
The FLT is where the decisions are deliberated. Taking into consideration the information from the program reviews, the number of FTEs that each department will have for the following year is decided. Ritter said, “In the end, the administration makes the decision. But we certainly wanted to make a better decision by being informed by what the faculty knows [and] recommends.”
The higher-education hiring cycle starts in September, so in order to post positions and attract the best applicants, the FTE allocation process begins more than a year in advance of when the newly hired faculty will actually begin teaching. Ritter said, “[Last year,] we asked the faculty, as a courtesy, [to notify] us by May 15 2015 [of plans to leave Principia after the 2015/2016 school year]. By May 15 we knew how many openings we expected to have and by June 15 the departments had all put in their proposals asking for positions.”
It turned out that there was funding for seven and a half FTEs (seven full-time positions and one part-time position), but there were ten and a half FTE requests. This was when the program reviews became important in the allocation of the FTEs. According to Ritter, “What the [sociology] program reviewers said was that [Principia]… does a great job on the sociology of the other, [such as in the] ‘Race’ and Ethnicity [class or the] Gender Paradigms [class]. But [according to the review] there’s parts of sociology that we’re just really not covering… and there’s just not enough focus on anthropology either. [The review said] Principia… needs four, and really five [faculty] if we wanted to have a quality sociology program.”
The sociology department has full-time faculty, but it is also supported by multi-disciplinary faculty. This makes the situation trickier. Ritter said, “With [sociology professor] Jackie [Burns’] retirement—and it’s not because of [Burns’] retirement—we really have one full-time sociology professor.”
According to the program review, at least two or three more faculty would have to be hired in order to maintain the program. “And that just seemed to be too much of a challenge to overcome. We’re at a [low] point now with enrollment [so] we’re not adding additional faculty FTEs. We certainly don’t want to lose any, but where would we find that other position? It would have to come from another department [outside of sociology],” said Ritter.
In the end, the administration made the decision to cut the sociology major. Ritter added, “These were tough decisions, and time will tell if they were good ones.” The students that had already declared the sociology major will still be able to graduate with it, but no new majors will be accepted.
Though the numbers had a lot to do with the decision, there were other factors at work. The burgeoning global studies major is a program that holds a lot of potential—there are a wealth of pre-existing programs that could be drawn together and unified to create something with a huge impact, according to Ritter. “[Global studies professor] Sally [Steindorf] has been looking at, metaphorically speaking, what is in our ‘cupboard,’” he said.
“For example, there ways we can use the abroads more effectively throughout the whole curriculum, instead of just a single presentation [at the end of each program]. The singular presentations are wonderful and great, but we could do so much more,” said Ritter.
He added, “Global studies is something that we feel that Principia can be good at, and should be good at. When we look at what Principia is, we really are an international, global college that happens to be in Elsah. [We have a lot of] international students, [to whom we want to give a] great education, and [from whose] wealth of knowledge we can learn. [We can turn] our global studies major into a global studies movement.”