Wednesday, December 12, 2018
The Profile

All Academia, Big and Small: Why Size Matters at Agnes Scott



Small and intimate, Agnes Scott College furnishes an academic experience that is meant to be distinct. Although, lately the narrative around students’ choice in academics at Agnes Scott appears to resemble that of other educational institutions: the college is carving out humanities and less developed academia on campus in exchange for majors that lead to professions more easily accepted in society, such as English, Biology, etc.

There are academic alcoves on campus that seem to be overflowing with resources that allow them to host more events and supply post-graduation possibilities for alums. Admittedly, some of these benefits are because of outside donors, but ultimately, Agnes Scott’s financial backing determines the breadth of possibility for all educational corners of campus.

What then becomes of the less resource-endowed academic subjects? Are they being stifled from growing? A number of faculty members from smaller programs and departments discuss some of the effects of limited funding.

“We have a miniscule budget… but if we had a larger [budget] we could do more programs, bring in speakers, and have a film series,” said Dr. Willie Tolliver Jr., director of Africana Studies and Film and Media Studies.

He added, “We did ask for an increase in our budget about four or five years ago and it was granted, but there was a change in the administration. I guess that fell through the cracks of that transition… [but the money we requested] wasn’t that much.”

“One thing that would make a difference would be faculty that would be housed in Africana Studies… If we were to get a position that were clearly dedicated to the program, then we could ask for it to be a department,” said Tolliver.

The longing for a new permanent professor seems to be a shared sentiment across a lot of the small academic fields at Agnes Scott. Dr. Elizabeth Hackett, director of the Women’s Studies program — which often has many students enrolled in Women’s Studies classes but no professor trained in this speciality — argues,

“What will make [Women’s Studies] great is when we have a full-time, tenure-track professor in Women’s Studies with a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies to complement the wonderful  interdisciplinary support that we already have.”

Programs tend to be interdisciplinary, so they are cross-listed with other academia. As such, they can be taught from a variety of perspectives. Unfortunately, that also means that programs are generally not allowed to have faculty lines at Agnes Scott like that of departments. However, Hackett asserts that Women’s Studies is not actually lacking in power because it is recognized as having departmental status for hiring purposes despite being a program.

Nonetheless, it does seem ironic that a historically women’s college with a proud assortment of backgrounds in its student body would offer such a cramped space for gender and race studies to be pursued.

In the wider world, including Agnes Scott, there is mounting concern over the future of less popular academic subjects and their relevance to today’s computerized landscape.

The Harvard Business Review reports that the liberal arts are starting to be realized as the best educational preparation for the technology industry, which has not been able to manage ideas that exist outside the vacuum of their calculations. Now they are seeking broader expertise and human understanding from their employees.

“I think if you look at places where [the humanities] have been gutted, I don’t think they end up with what they hope to do, which is surviving,” said Dr. Jared Millson, Kirk Postdoctoral Fellow for the Philosophy department.

Still, some question if arbitrarily chosen “elite” academic subjects are unduly favored over others in the decision-making processes at Agnes Scott, perhaps because of an attachment to science and math-oriented studies and more mainstream disciplines in the face of outside economic demands.

From an administrative position, Dean of Academic Affairs Kerry Pannell, believes in the stability of the liberal arts at Agnes Scott. She explains that there is a curriculum committee that ranks proposals from academic departments, such as searches for new professors.

According to Pannell, while student interest is the largest factor in deciding faculty employment, the applicability of an academic proposal to Agnes Scott’s curriculum is also heavily considered. This would suggest little bias in the allocation of size and funding for academics. Yet how do popular programs like Women’s Studies remain so restricted if student interest is the driving force behind funding distribution?

“[Agnes Scott has not] had increases in interdisciplinary program budgets since the reforms that happened in 2011 because our priorities have been on hiring” said Pannell.

To further defend Agnes Scott’s promise to the liberal arts, Pannell maintains that incoming president Leocadia (Lee) I. Zak will continue to uphold their place at Agnes Scott,

“She’s not going to take us to a radically different direction.”

Buttrick Hall is home to many of Agnes Scott’s small departments. Photo by Joann Lee ’20.

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