Reflections from an underperforming department

Biochemistry major Christian David studies for an upcoming exam. Many of his classes are in those departments deemed “underperforming.” Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

In the recent University News article about departmental scholarships, I read that a high-level member of the administration believes that from a financial perspective, art, chemistry/biochemistry, classics, computer science, drama, French, German, mathematics, music, physics, and Spanish are “underperforming departments,” living from university subsidies.  It was also suggested that these seemingly deficient departments should take on more responsibility for recruitment. So, independent Catholic thinkers, let us reflect on this from another perspective.

These departmental scholarships are granted to small departments. Because they are small by design, and the administration does not invest in them much, their growth is limited. Allow me an example: The administration failed to replace a French faculty member who retired recently. How many faculty members does it take to offer courses for the Core, the concentration and the major, and recruit new students? The administration seems to believe that number to be exactly one.  

The University of Dallas has a single French professor for everything. This is underperforming? Clearly the chief cause of the small major is the limitation placed upon it by the administration. If more French majors are desired, the requisite faculty must exist. This is like Pharaoh asking for more bricks with no straw.  Indeed, most of the “underperforming” departments in question have always had few faculty, and currently they are facing hiring freezes, including replacement hires for faculty who have retired or passed away, such as Dr. Maurer in classics.

One should also keep in mind that the administration has slashed all departmental budgets, reduced our number of tutors, and forced departments to use donations to pay for operating costs. But these challenges aside, what do the “underperforming” departments in question do at UD?

The only metric used to determine the worth of a department seems to be the number of majors it can boast. How about the number of majors per faculty member? Or the number of students serviced and taught in department courses and the number of credit hours generated for degree completion? According to the university’s Strategic Plan, biology, business, and English are the largest majors at UD. In Fall 2013 biology generated 1,487 credit hours. Modern languages with fewer majors generated 2,931 credit hours in the same semester. Business at the undergraduate level generated even fewer than biology at 1,045. Modern languages generates more than both put together and is the fourth largest generator of credit hours at UD, behind English, philosophy, and history.

Biology and Business are tremendous assets for UD. It would be wrong to say they underperform because they generate fewer credit hours. But why are majors more valuable than the foundation of those majors in the Core?  A large contribution to the Core necessitates the care of those offerings, and, consequently, we spend less time on major offerings because of staffing issues.

It seems to me, then, that these underperforming departments are actually subsidizing the Core at the expense of their own growth. Two thirds or more of my faculty’s teaching load is devoted to Core courses. Furthermore, one should also consider departments like chemistry and math, which are necessary for the curricula of larger majors like biology and business.

UD also just embarked on a Classical Education master’s program that promises financial gain.  Would it not make sense to have a strong Classics Department? What of the incredible number of language Fulbrights, or those who get grants to do STEM research making us look oh-so-good in rankings?  

Perhaps saddest of all is the lack of support for the arts.Not supporting the arts often means they will dwindle and disappear.Is that the kind of institution we have become? This issue is really about an academic vision and academic leadership not to be viewed solely from a financial perspective.  

No, I must respectfully disagree with the assertion that the university subsidizes small departments. The opposite is true: We subsidize the education and vision of the university; not with money, but with the blood, sweat and tears put into the intrinsic value of the subjects that we offer along with the truth, wisdom, virtue and practical experience that these subjects impart.

Many come to UD not for a specific major, but for the reputation for liberal learning that all of our departments contribute to, shape and form. We should support that academic vision by supporting these programs. When we reach the point where financial perspectives overshadow academic ones, we should look not for “underperforming” departments, but for the underperforming administrative decisions that led to the change in perspective in the first place.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Eidt, for writing this piece, which is thoughtful, clear, persuasive, and — what may be more important during this crisis of identity at the University — beautifully humane and truly liberal in spirit.

    -Daniel Orazio, Classical Philology ’13

  2. Hear hear, Dr. Eidt. Thank you especially for pointing out the staffing constraints the French program faces. We have done well, despite these difficulties, to create a program that fosters interdisciplinary intellectual development.


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