Math department releases emails with administration on contact hours

By Brian Frost (EE ’19)

According to email correspondence provided by the Department of Mathematics, President Laura Sparks is “confident” that Dean Richard Stock’s directive to reduce contact hours in some required math classes achieves the “best for The Cooper Union and our students.”

The mathematics department feels that the “policy change will unavoidably lead to a diminution of the depth and breadth of our students’ mathematical preparation, thereby jeopardizing their readiness to excel in the sciences and engineering.”

Regarding the concerns expressed by the mathematics department, President Sparks wrote in an email from March 5 that she did not “hear any information that would be prohibitive” to the department’s compliance with the dean’s directive. No specific points brought up by the mathematics department were responded to in this email. The Department of Chemistry also received an email with near-identical wording.

Regardless of the specific policy change, the email correspondence highlights a lack of effective communication between the dean’s office, the president’s office, and the Department of Mathematics. Dean Stock announced the finalized policy change in a Jan. 30 email, but the mathematics department regarded that email as the “first formal communication on the issue of equating contact hours to credits hours” for mathematics courses. The topic was discussed “informally” in a 2016 meeting, according to the mathematics department.

In the president’s eyes, Stock “announced this management change back in 2016” and requested that the department chairs work with him through “alternative solutions.” But the department chairs, according to Sparks, “chose not to.”

While it’s seemingly set in stone, this policy change has not been proposed to the Curriculum Committee. According to the Governance of The Albert Nerken School of Engineering, the faculty “shall have primary responsibility for policies relating to the formulation of curricula, and shall approve new curricula and major changes of curricula.” Yet in their emails, Dean Stock and President Sparks both acknowledge that curricular change would be a result of this policy.

According to the dean’s directive, as of next semester, core courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry will have their weekly contact hours reduced to match their respective number of credits. In article from the last issue of The Pioneer, the chairs of the chemistry and physics departments were interviewed on this topic, expressing concern for, among much else, the weakening of the curriculum and the reputation of the school.

In place of an interview, the mathematics department has provided The Pioneer with email exchanges between the department and several members of the administration, all of which can be found here. The emails reflect the sentiment of the mathematics faculty in general.

This correspondence begins with an email from Dean Stock from Jan. 30, citing a meeting in fall 2016 at which the changes in question were first brought to the attention of the mathematics faculty. In this email, Stock lists the affected courses, asking the department to “review and revise the course syllabi and curriculae [sic] to be able to work within these constraints” with the changes effective Sept. 2018. It is of note that the reasons provided for these changes here are purely financial, with the dean stating that “these changes in operations will contribute positively to the plans to return The Cooper Union to financial solvency.”

The response from the mathematics department calls into question the amount of notice given about these changes, acknowledging that the 2016 meeting in question did include a discussion on contact hours, but only “very briefly.” More specifically, the department deemed the discussions held on this topic “informal,” and note that the discussion ended with the dean deferring to the opinion of the mathematics faculty on this issue:

“The administration should have had no expectation that this serious curricular matter, which clearly requires an extended discussion among not just faculty in the math department, but more generally, the school of engineering, would begin to be addressed in Fall 2016 – especially, not given the tone and the outcome of our Fall 2016 Meeting.”

At the time of the meeting, the mathematics faculty were “adamant that such a change would be detrimental to the pedagogy of the Department.”

Furthermore, the department notes that they have been open to major change for the sake of the institution before, having recently agreed to standardize final exams and homework exercises for first-year calculus courses. On the issue of contact hours, however, they cite several reasons for their strong disagreement with the changes. Reducing contact hours would force the mathematics department to teach core courses at a lesser depth, adversely affecting “immersion of students in their respective disciplines” as well as weakening the quality of the math minor. The email notes, particularly, the fact that it would likely have adverse effects on the department’s current ability to provide independent studies for advanced students, which they do for no compensation.

Lastly, it is noted that the mathematics department does not find itself in a position to make such a major change, due to a recent retirement, a professor being on sabbatical leave, and a professor being on medical leave.

In response to these addressed concerns, President Sparks reached out to Chair of Mathematics Om Agrawal, inviting him to meet and discuss these concerns as well as potential alternatives for the cutting of contact hours. The terms of the meeting were outlined by the president, who stated that “This will not be a venue to debate the issues, but rather for me to hear directly from you what your concerns and ideas are.” The president later stated the following:

“The purpose of this meeting is to afford you the opportunity to tell me why the changes announced by Dean Stock cannot work for the Math Department. If you have any alternative suggestions for ways that the Math Department would use facilities and provide considerable relief that allows for more scheduling flexibility to more effectively serve our students, I would welcome your suggestions.”

Professor Agrawal accepted this meeting, but was denied his request to extend the invitation to Professors Stan Mintchev and Robert Smyth. This meeting was held on Feb. 22.

The records of this meeting are not in The Pioneer’s possession, however, the department compiled a fairly thorough argument against the instatement of these credit hour changes in the email correspondence provided to The Pioneer. These remarks were sent to President Sparks, as well as Administrator Lauren Desiderio, two days prior to their meeting with Professor Agrawal on Feb. 22.

Here, the department not only more comprehensively describes earlier concerns, but they raise several new issues as well. For example, they attempt to rebut the suggestion of recitation hours as replacement for course time, noting that in their professional experience, there is no part of an instructor’s job in the classroom—homework review included—which can be performed as effectively by an upperclassman or graduate student.

On the topic of feasibility, the department argues that either the depth or breadth of the covered material is to be substantially cut, and they note that this is not tractable in the time given as it requires careful deliberations not only within the already-diminished mathematics department, but with each engineering department as well.

The department goes on to give reasons, beyond logistics, which trouble them about the instituted changes. Among these are the impact a loss of contact hours can have on otherwise disadvantaged students, who benefit most from extra contact hours, especially in their core classes. Along with these grievances are the concerns that mathematically inclined students will no longer be as easily able to pursue mathematics at a higher level through upper-level electives and independent studies.

The final piece of this correspondence is the decision, by the president, to roll out these changes despite the grievances posed by the mathematics department.

The president goes on to say that there has been and will be ample time for the department to come to a decision on how to conform to these changes. Despite the concerns raised above, Sparks is hopeful, saying that she believes the department “will be able to create a robust offering in Mathematics curriculum for our students.”

As of the time of the writing of this article, these changes will go into effect at the beginning of the fall semester.

Leave a Reply