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Wealth of problems for Econ majors

IT'S EASY to go through your time at the University without wondering how things used to be. In some cases it may not matter; a new student center is coming soon, as is an improved basketball arena. But you often might not even know what you're missing. Such is the case for economics majors.

Believe it or not, just 10 short years ago, the economics department was a completely different, infinitely better place. Today economics majors enjoy a major-to-faculty ratio almost twice as high as it used to be, have the pleasure of attending class in the worst building on Grounds, and can rest easy knowing that, unless either the University appropriates more funds or allows the department to raise its own funds privately, there's probably no change in sight.

In 1991, there were 258 economics majors. By 2000, that number had risen by 354 students to a total of 612, a welcome increase. Perhaps this increase is a result of the economic boom of the '90s, or simply increased enrollment throughout the University. You'd think an increase in majors would bring an increase in funding and faculty, but this 140 percent increase in majors wasn't accompanied by an appropriate rise in faculty.

During the same 10-year period from 1991 to 2000, the number of full-time faculty (tenured, tenure track and non-track) only slightly increased, from 22 to 29. So, while the number of majors increased by 140 percent, the faculty hired to accommodate all these extra students increased a mere 32 percent. In other words, while the number of economics majors more than doubled, the number of full-time faculty remained nearly the same. This is an unacceptable ratio.

The student-faculty ratio in the economics department in 1991 was 11 economics majors to every full-time professor. Now, 21 students must compete for the attention of a single professor. At a 44 percent increase in student-faculty ratio, this is more like a high school student-teacher ratio than what economics majors at a top-notch university should have to deal with.

There clearly is a shortage of full-time faculty, and while some departments may make up for a high student-faculty ratio by hiring part-time faculty and graduate students, the economics department is different. Since 1991, the number of part-time faculty has only increased from 10 to 13, and the number of graduate students in residence has only risen by one.

You'd think that with such an increase in student-faculty ratio, the University could at least make sure these unlucky students could attend class in a decent classroom. Not so. An Inside U.Va. report released in Feb. 2001 shows that Rouss Hall - home of the economics department - is in the poorest condition of any facility on Grounds. Any building exceeding a 10 percent rating (based on needed repairs) was considered poor enough to constitute improvements. Rouss Hall took top prize with a whopping 43 percent rating, with Fayerweather Hall a distant second at 31 percent.

To make matters worse, Bill Johnson, former head of the economics department, said in a personal interview, "The University has a list of priority building projects for the 2002-4 period. Nine of those projects involve Arts and Sciences buildings; Rouss Hall is not on that list." It's ridiculous that the building most in need of repair in the entire University isn't even a priority in its own college.

The lack of faculty to accommodate for the rise in majors over the past 10 years, along with the decrepit state of Rouss Hall, have combined to paint a disappointing picture for Econ majors. Unfortunately, there may be no change in sight.

It's not an easy task to allocate funds among the various colleges at U.Va. Without a growing source of revenue, the economics department can't just soak up more of the funds and leave the others out to dry. Johnson agrees: "Giving more to Arts and Sciences requires reducing resources to other schools and that is difficult politically. However, I have been disappointed that the administration has actually increased the amount of state money going to some other schools that are already extremely well funded."

Another problem arises in that economics professors are demanding higher salaries than those of other departments. Their skills are wanted in the business sector as well, and so, as Johnson states, "It is difficult to recruit and retain economics professors, especially in 'hot' areas like finance and international economics. Like Alice in Wonderland, we have to run very fast just to stay in one place."

Using private funds may be the only way to improve the economics department. Two years ago, the department raised enough funds to hire an architect to plan a renovation and expansion of Rouss Hall, but so far the department hasn't been allowed to seek private donations for construction.

The University needs to re-think its allocations process to the economics department, or allow the department to seek its own outside help. Otherwise the University may find itself losing all the majors who have switched to economics in recent years.

(Brandon Almond is a Cavalier Daily opinion editor. He is an economics major. He can be reached at balmond@cavalierdaily.com.)

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