It has been two months since my last post. Sorry for the extended silence, but I do have a real job. It is not coincidental that my last post precedes the start of the semester. It has been the best of semesters, but mostly the worst of semesters.
On the positive side, I’m teaching our upper level cosmology course. The students are great, really interested and interactive. Interest has always run high, going back to the first time I taught it (in 1999) as a graduate course at the University of Maryland. Aficionados of web history may marvel at the old course website, which was one of the first of its kind, as was the class – prior to that, graduate level cosmology was often taught as part of extragalactic astronomy. Being a new member of the faculty, it was an obvious gap to fill. I also remember with bemusement receiving Mike A’Hearn (comet expert and PI of Deep Impact) as an envoy from the serious-minded planetary scientists, who wondered if there was enough legitimate substance to the historically flaky subject of cosmology to teach a full three credit graduate course on the subject. Being both an expert and a skeptic, it was easy to reassure him: yes.
That class was large for a graduate level course, being taken in equal numbers by both astronomy and physics students. The astronomers were shocked and horrified that I went so deeply into the background theory to frame the course from the outset, and frequently asked “what’s a metric?” while the physicists loved that part. When we got to observational constraints, you could see the astronomers’ eyes glaze – not the distance scale again – while the physicists desperately asked “what’s a distance modulus?” This dichotomy persists.
This semester’s course is the largest it has ever been, up 70% from previous already-large enrollments. This is consistent with the explosive growth of the field. Interest in the field has never been higher. The number of astronomy majors has doubled over the past decade, having doubled already in the preceding decade.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that over the past four years, our department has been allowed to whither. In 2018, we were the smallest astronomy department in the country, with five tenured professors and an observatory manager who functioned as research faculty. The inevitable retirements that we had warned our administration were coming arrived, and we were allowed to fall off the demographic cliff (a common problem here and at many institutions). Despite the clear demand and the depth, breadth, and diversity of the available talent pool, the only faculty hire we have made in the past decade was an instructor (a rank that differs from a professor in having no research obligations), so now we are a department of two tenured professors and one instructor. I thought we were already small! It boggles the mind when you realize that the three of us are obliged to cover literally the entire universe in our curriculum.
Though always a small department, we managed. Now we don’t manage so much as cling to the edge of the cliff by our fingernails. We can barely cover the required courses for our majors. During the peak of concern about the Covid pandemic, we Chairs were asked to provide a plan for covering courses should one or some of our faculty become ill for an extended period. What a joke. The only “plan” I could offer was “don’t get sick.”
We did at least get along, which is not the case with faculty in all departments. The only minor tension we sometimes encountered was the distribution of research students. A Capstone (basically a senior thesis) is required here, and some faculty wound up with a higher supervisory load than others. That is baked-in now, as we have fewer faculty but more students to supervise.
We have reached a breaking point. The only way to address the problems we face is to hire new faculty. So the solution proffered by the dean is to merge our department into Physics.
Regardless of any other pros and cons, a merger does nothing to address the fundamental problem: we need astronomers to teach the astronomy curriculum. We need astronomers to conduct astronomy research, and to have a critical mass for a viable research community. In short, we need astronomers to do astronomy.
I have been Chair of the CWRU Department of Astronomy for over seven years now. Prof. Mihos served in this capacity for six years before that. No sane faculty member wants to be Chair; it is a service obligation we take on because there are tasks that need doing to serve our students and enable our research. Though necessary, these tasks are a drain on the person doing them, and detract from our ability to help our students and conduct research. Having sustained the department for this long to be told we needn’t have bothered is a deep and profound betrayal. I did not come here to turn out the lights.