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Plight of UNM's 'Mathmagicians'

Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
By 2010 Martin Salazar
Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          An exodus of University of New Mexico statistics professors in recent years has left the program "decimated" and in danger of collapse, faculty in the Mathematics and Statistics Department are warning.
        Already suffering a faculty shortage, the statistics program has taken another hit in recent weeks with the resignations of two of its six tenure-track faculty.
        The program will be down to four at the end of this semester, although a College of Arts & Sciences report pegs the minimum number of statistics faculty necessary for the program to be fully functional at 10.
        While statistics is in particularly bad shape, the whole Mathematics and Statistics Department is currently down 10 faculty from the 38 considered a minimum for a fully functioning department.
        "In the current situation, we cannot give our students the preparation they need to be competitive on the job market," wrote Michele Guindani, assistant professor of statistics who is leaving for the University of Texas in Houston.
        Guindani's internal memo obtained by the Journal said he would jeopardize his career by staying at UNM, because there's not enough time to do meaningful research, handle a high course load and tackle other administrative responsibilities. He also said the situation in the department makes it impossible for senior faculty to mentor junior faculty.
        Curtis Storlie, the other assistant professor who is resigning, questioned where the money from his department's faculty vacancies has gone. Many of the vacancies have been offset with part-time faculty, who cost less than tenure-track faculty.
        "I refuse to wake up someday 10 or 20 years from now and regret staying at a university that refuses to acknowledge the importance of my discipline," Storlie wrote in his resignation letter. He has accepted a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
        Statistics faculty are responsible for running undergraduate and master's programs, and the state's only Ph.D. program in statistics. The faculty shortage could have repercussions throughout UNM because statistics is a bedrock discipline critical to other academic programs and to the university's research mission.
        Several academic departments, like biology, currently require their students to take statistics through the Mathematics and Statistics Department.
        "It's not clear how long or how well we're going to be able to continue doing what we're doing," statistics professor Ronald Christensen said.
        Provost Suzanne Ortega and Arts and Sciences Dean Brenda Claiborne noted that the shortage in Mathematics and Statistics predates their arrivals at UNM. Ortega said that, although it is a serious situation, she doesn't believe it is a crisis yet.
        Associate Dean Felipe Gonzales said UNM is making good-faith efforts to fix the problem. Statisticians are highly sought after and command high salaries, he said.
        "We have done the hiring, and we've just had people leave at a faster rate than we could keep up with," Claiborne added.
        A search for a biostatistician or biomathematician is now under way, with the hope of hiring someone by August.
        Faculty members are less optimistic, saying that the $70,000 maximum salary for the position is not competitive and that high-quality faculty will likely not want to work in a department that's so understaffed.
        UNM officials plan to search for two more faculty members in the fall and are considering a search for a third. The following academic year, they hope to launch two more searches. All of that is contingent on necessary funding.
        It's not just UNM's math faculty sounding the alarm.
        An academic review by a team of evaluators in 2008 concluded that staffing in the Mathematics and Statistics Department "is in an emergency state and immediate action is critical."
        Indeed, the evaluation team said faculty were performing more like "mathmagicians" based on what they had been accomplishing with limited resources.
        The evaluators said that, while staffing was going down, the department was doubling the number of credit hours taught. They also found that graduate students were leaving, because they could not find an adviser to work with and appropriate courses.
        "You send a memo. (Administrators) respond. They're sympathetic, but nothing happens," department chair Alexander Stone said. "It's just a bad situation."
        Stone noted that a gradual decline in math and statistics faculty since the mid-1990s predates the state's current budget problems.
        While statistics faculty say the staffing level is hurting the quality of education at all levels, Ortega disagrees.
        "At least with respect to undergraduate education, there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that this particular loss of faculty or any other has diminished the quality of the instruction our very dedicated tenure-track faculty and part-time faculty are providing," Ortega said. "What it does mean is there is pressure on their capacity to effectively mentor and graduate doctoral students."

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