April 28, 2012 in Opinion

Guest opinion: EWU wrong to cut graduate math program

Ronald Gentle Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

The problem of student success in remedial mathematics is nationwide. Eastern Washington University is no exception. Passing high school math, yet having to redo it based on low placement test scores, plus having to pay tuition for non-credit classes, believing mathematics has nothing to do with their careers and, finally, poor math instructors, has raised discontent among remedial math students.

The most vocal complaints about graduate instructors (GIs) reached EWU President Rodolfo Arevalo. His response was to terminate the graduate mathematics program.

The decision overturned the recommendation of the Program Audit Committee, chaired by Vice Provost Ron Dalla and consisting of deans and faculty representatives.

The math master’s degree program is low-cost, high-quality, provides certain post-graduation employment, has a strong impact on the region, supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives, and is unique in this area.

The use of GIs is a win-win situation because these students work their way through graduate school while providing an inexpensive labor force of dedicated, motivated, intelligent and inspiring young adults. They can run tutorials, maintain the math labs, help faculty with large upper-division courses, and some make excellent instructors for pre-calculus. The mathematics department would prefer not to use GIs as remediation instructors, but has been forced to because of a shortage of faculty.

Remedial math brings in $1.5 million to EWU through tuition and state support.

In late September, the department was informed of increased support for remedial mathematics. Plans were made to incorporate new lecturers, along with backup GI support to improve the delivery of undergraduate mathematics education.

We were unaware that a decision had already been made to terminate the grad program, which did not come to our attention until mid-November, when it appeared on the board of trustees’ agenda. In February, the president finally provided justification for discontinuance: quality of students, productivity and cost.

Low quality? Program alumni now play pivotal roles in our community. Our graduates include the dean of Computing, Math and Science at Spokane Falls Community College; the chairs of the math departments at SFCC, North Idaho Community College and Whitworth University; the coordinator of Secondary Math for Spokane Public Schools; and the vice president of the Association for Higher Education. Furthermore, 35 of our graduates are currently faculty at these same colleges, plus EWU, Gonzaga University and Spokane Community College. Another 12 are teachers at local high schools.

Regarding productivity: Our program is the average size for comparable math programs. We’ve had bad years, but lately there has been a renewed interest in a master’s in math from other disciplines (bio-informatics, signal analysis, imaging, finance, cryptology, secondary education). At a time of viable growth, the decision for termination shows a lack of vision by leadership.

The master’s program was small, consisting of only seven courses per year, plus thesis work. The total cost of the program is about $100,000, but replacing the GIs with full-time lecturers will create a net loss of roughly $200,000 per year, as confirmed by EWU’s financial officers. Arevalo, in his desire to get rid of the program, determined the grad program costs EWU $458,000 per year by including the master’s K-9 teaching program, which has no overlap with the math master’s program, and by means of a disingenuous weighting system that made it appear that a greater percentage of faculty salary goes to the graduate program.

No one has questioned these numbers, which is just what the administration expected.

It is sheer folly to believe that removing GIs and replacing them with more costly lecturers will solve remediation problems. The College Board has indicated that the remediation problem is the country’s greatest educational problem.

The faculty senate recently recommended to the president that the program continue, giving the math department two years to resolve issues. The president refuses to waver, and as a consequence a program that has benefited EWU financially and has a major impact on the region has been irrationally sacrificed. EWU has been diminished academically.

Ronald Gentle has been a professor of mathematics at Eastern Washington University since 1990 and has directed more than 35 master’s theses.


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