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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

250 faculty members sign letter expressing “profound concerns” over understaffing at College of Arts and Sciences

Hundreds of academics allege the student body has outpaced staff hiring for decades.

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On Oct. 29, approximately 250 College staff members sent an open letter to President Sian Beilock and members of Dartmouth senior leadership raising “profound concern” about a staffing crisis reaching “emergency proportions” in the College of Arts and Sciences. About one-third of the faculty – ranging from postdoctoral fellows to tenured professors – signed the letter, including at least one member of every department in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to a staffing shortage in the Arts and Sciences department and program administrative staff, the letter raised concerns about shortages in several other departments, including conferences and events, Information and Technology and facilities. The College’s understaffing problems are “pervasive” and “longstanding,” history professor Bethany Moreton said. 

“We are very concerned about staffing levels for basic functions,” Moreton said. “This is a major problem that has been a drag on the College for as long as I have been here.”

Between 2004 and 2022, Dartmouth added a net of 313 undergraduates, 748 graduate students and 186 faculty, according to data from the College’s Office of Institutional Research. Taken together, these trends represent about a 20% growth in the number of students and faculty on campus over the last two decades. The number of overall staff during the same period decreased by 124, or about 4%. 

“The situation is more complex than just these numbers, but it’s a starting point on why everything feels chaotic, and the systems don’t work very well and haven’t worked very well over the time I’ve been here,” Moreton said.

While the letter does not contain a list of specific demands – instead asking that the College listens to staff members’ “own analysis of this crisis and its remedies” – it does press the College to “close the gap” and bring staff pay at Dartmouth closer to “peer institutions.”

“What is very clear is that we’re not offering the kinds of staff wages that our peers, like Tufts [University] and Harvard [University], are offering,” associate history professor Pamela Voekel said.

English professor Donald Pease said the College of Arts and Sciences faculty have the “benefit” of a shared governance model, in which they share responsibility for the governance of the College with the Board of Trustees and the President. 

“The chief responsibility of the faculty is to advocate for those who do not have a voice in shared governance,” Pease said. “The advocacy of faculty has been significant for maintaining the status of Dartmouth as a just institution, and the staff are currently subject to what are, in my mind, unjust working conditions.”

Voekel added that while faculty have the power under the shared governance model to bring this issue to the table, it is “very important” for College leadership to “listen to the ground view” of staff.

“We want staff to articulate what the solutions are,” Voekel said.

College administration declined to comment directly on the letter, but College spokesperson Diana Lawrence said that members of the senior leadership are aware of the letter and “will respond to the faculty.” 

Moreton – who worked with Voekel and other faculty to draft the letter — said it came together “very quickly,” and that once written, the letter circulated for about a week before they presented it to Beilock and senior leadership.

“I have never seen anything like it here; it really struck a chord in a way that I haven’t seen other things strike a chord,” Voekel said. “What we heard from people when we started circulating the petition was ‘oh, finally.’ People were waiting for an outlet to say these things.”

Geography and environmental studies professor Christopher Sneddon said that his first reason for signing the letter was to recognize “all of the hard work” that department administrators have put in over the years.

“What has always impressed me is that our staff have incredible loyalty to Dartmouth,” Sneddon said. “Department administrators are the heart and soul of the College.”

Moreton said the College cannot treat staff positions as an “afterthought.”

“Dartmouth’s staff are our partners in everything we do,” Moreton said. “Staff are extraordinarily qualified and creative people. We respect and appreciate our colleagues who are staff members that we don’t want to demand things of them that are inappropriate for their positions.”

Moreton said that a “spark” for writing the letter was the College’s September announcement that it had set aside funding for the hiring of 15 new staff positions that will provide administrative and technical support across all Arts and Sciences departments.

While it was “encouraging” to see that Beilock is working to solve staff concerns, Moreton said the announcement “fundamentally misapprehends the scale and scope of the problem.” Moreton said that the fact that the 15 new staff will not be assigned to any specific department means that faculty will have to “compete” for the support of staff.

“There is nothing I appreciate more about working here than the extraordinary quality of the staff,” Moreton said. “But there will come a tipping point, I think. Eventually, any given person is losing reasons to prioritize working here under overstretched conditions.”

Sneddon, who served as geography department chair from 2017 until this past summer, said a decennial review of his department conducted by a committee of faculty from other universities “underscored” the need for more staff.

Moreton said the history department’s external review process revealed similar findings.

“What I can tell you from my recollection of my department’s decennial review is that a clear statement is made in the document that we need to add at least one more staff member to make for a ‘humane environment,’” Moreton said.

Part of the decrease in staff positions dates back to budget cuts under former President Jim Yong Kim, Pease said. At the time, Kim argued that his cuts were fiscally necessary, adding that staffing levels would increase again in the future. 

The College has been able to address many other important issues – around financial aid, for example – but it has not yet addressed the problem of understaffing, perhaps because senior leadership was not aware of the pervasiveness of the problem, Pease said. 

Pease argued that now is the time to address the staffing issue, especially in light of the College’s Call to Lead campaign under former President Phil Hanlon ’77, which raised over $3.7 billion.

“The English department could not thrive without the dedication and commitment of staff,” Pease said. “Staff are the unsung heroes of this institution.” 

Pease explained that the English department has one staff member, Kate Gibbel, who fills a variety of roles, including IT support as well as coordinating lectures and events. She regularly puts in 10-hour days, he added.

Moreton said College senior leadership responded “very quickly” to the letter, and a conversation with Beilock, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Smith and Provost David Kotz ’86 is planned for next week.

“We look forward to that conversation,” Moreton said.