The Key To Academic Bliss Can Be Found In Large Or Small Departments

INDIVIDUALITY: James Perley has found that a small department enables a researcher to be "your own person." When biologist James Perley first began teaching at Ohio's Wooster College in 1967, he wasn't sure he'd like it. Wooster is a small place. Perley, however, had studied and worked in big schools, including the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. In a small department, would he feel content-or claustrophobic? Content, as it turns out. Nearly 20 years later, Perley is still

Oct 28, 1996
Kathryn Brown

INDIVIDUALITY: James Perley has found that a small department enables a researcher to be "your own person."
When biologist James Perley first began teaching at Ohio's Wooster College in 1967, he wasn't sure he'd like it. Wooster is a small place. Perley, however, had studied and worked in big schools, including the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. In a small department, would he feel content-or claustrophobic?

Content, as it turns out. Nearly 20 years later, Perley is still at Wooster, in a department with seven other faculty members. "I've found that in a small department, you're really an individual, your own person," says Perley, who also is president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Professors. "You may be the only one responsible for your professional area." As the lone teacher and researcher of a given subject, a professor must creatively cover a lot of territory. Perley says he enjoys the challenge.

Few studies have compared faculty satisfaction in big and small departments. In research productivity, at least, United States and European science policymakers traditionally have argued that bigger is better. However, several studies refute that assumption, suggesting small research groups can be as constructive as larger ones (R. Johnston, Higher Education, 28:25-37, 1994; J.E. Cohen, Scientometrics, 3:467-87, 1981). One recent survey of faculty at Norway's four universities found no significant relationship between department size and publication rate (S. Kyvik, Higher Education, 30:295-304, 1995).

Informally, researchers agree that differently sized departments offer classic pros and cons. Big departments boast an "economy of scale"-the more faculty members there are, the more they share teaching requirements, contribute to budgets, and broaden intellectual input. Meanwhile, smaller departments win kudos for a personal work environment that may offer faculty more power, less internal conflict, and an individual niche.

"There really are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of departments," notes Perley. "You've got to decide what's right for you."

'BROAD STIMULUS': George Smith says a department with many faculty promotes "cross-fertilization."
When professor George Smith heads to monthly faculty seminars at the University of Missouri's biology department, he knows he'll learn about topics far removed from his own research. In a department with some 40 faculty members, he's likely to hear lectures on topics as diverse as neurobiology and plant genetics.

"One thing a [large] department like ours offers is broad intellectual stimulus," he maintains. "There is a real cross-fertilization of people that have different viewpoints. We all go to our seminars and come away with new ideas."

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: Thomas Stephenson likes the camaraderie of a small department.
Like Smith, many researchers enjoy picking up broad ideas from a big group of colleagues. On the other hand, large departments may sometimes sacrifice one-on-one faculty interaction. It's one thing to sit in a lecture with dozens of colleagues. It's another thing to really know and work with your peers, according to Thomas Stephenson, chairman of the chemistry department at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Stephenson did his graduate work at the University of Chicago in a department with 25 faculty members; his current department has just six tenure-track researchers.

"When I was in Chicago, my closest interaction with some [departmental peers] was during our intramural softball team," says Stephenson. "Now, when we have a department meeting, we might all gather to talk about how a new biochemistry course fits into the curriculum." Such an up-close, hands-on atmosphere allows each faculty member to weigh in on department issues, he observes.

Rosemarie Marshall, a microbiologist at California State University in Los Angeles, agrees. Marshall's small microbiology department recently merged with a larger biology division, boosting the number of faculty members. "In larger units, it's easier to be out of the loop," she contends. "I frequently feel that unless I'm on some of the moving-and-shaking committees, I may not be involved at all in the development of policy recommendations."

What's more, Perley adds, getting choice committee appointments and other departmental perks can be very political in a big environment. "In a large department, there are factions who court young people," he says. "It takes a while to learn which [faction] to associate yourself with. In a small department, you have to work cooperatively because there are so few of you."

If faculty in small departments tend to cooperate more than their big-world peers, they also tend to do something else more: teach. Smaller schools-particularly those that enroll undergraduates only-have traditionally emphasized teaching over research. Even when they don't, small departments generally need faculty to carry heavier course loads than faculty in large departments do.

"It's hard to imagine a small department that doesn't have a high teaching load," comments Smith. "If you [offer an undergraduate] major, you have to teach a minimum number of courses. That's going to translate into quite a few courses per year."

Teaching, grading, and counseling students take time that might be spent on research. Additional teaching pressure can come from politicians who-seeking favor with taxpayers-repeatedly push public university administrators to improve classes. Under these circumstances, juggling research and teaching can be stressful-particularly for professors in small state schools that may have limited resources, notes Terrence Russell, executive director of the Association for Institutional Re- search, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based professional organization for higher education policymakers and planners.

"Some [faculty] are hired with the idea of doing research," says Russell. "That is built into their performance reviews. But the state legislature then puts the screws on in terms of teaching load." As a result, faculty in small departments may find little time to do the research that's expected of them, he maintains.

FLEXIBILITY: Robert Schlegel notes advantages of dividing up teaching duties among many faculty.
By contrast, a large department can divide course requirements among many faculty members, lessening the burden on each person. "Having a large department also allows me more flexibility in making teaching assignments," observes Robert A. Schlegel, who heads a 30-member department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University. "I don't have to have someone teaching outside their area of expertise. In a small department, that may be a serious problem."

But whether it's a problem depends on one's perspective, counters Stephenson. "At Swarthmore, I do teach in areas that are relatively far from my formal training as a physical chemist. I have had to broaden my interests. But I wouldn't be in this business if I didn't find that fun."

Ultimately, to be happy in a small department, faculty members must enjoy teaching and adjust their expectations for research, Stephenson advises. "Where I think people will drive themselves crazy in this environment is if the quantitative measures of research productivity are important to them," he says. "My productivity pales by comparison to someone in a large research department. But that's not to say research isn't important to me." By striving for research quality-not quantity-Stephenson says, he can accommodate both his own interests and his students' education.

Recognizing the need to support research in small colleges, the National Institutes of Health offers the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program. AREA is designed to fund smaller studies that might normally lose out to proposals from prolific faculty at large research institutions. In fiscal year 1996, the AREA program supported some 140 research projects to the tune of about $14 million. AREA program guidelines are available on NIH's World Wide Web home page (

Still, faculty in big departments typically enjoy more resources than do their small-school peers, from overhead-administrative funds for faculty travel, lab equipment, research assistants, and the like-to outside funding. NSF reports that in 1993, 57 percent of all academic R&D funds from the federal government, industry, and other sources went to just 50 institutions, most of them big and public (National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators- 1996, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996).

Working together, a group of researchers in a given specialty can obtain large grants for their department. In August, for example, a 10-member team of chemists and microbiologists at Penn State received a $1.5 million NSF grant to train graduate students on a research project involving microbes that live in extreme locales.

"In a large department, there's a higher probability that you'll have enough people in a given area to have a critical mass needed to win a training grant," says Schlegel. "The NSF grant involves seven people in our department and three in chemistry. Now, if you just had a department of 10 [faculty members], it would be impossible to get that money."

SIZABLE BUDGET: Martin Trow stresses the importance of departmental resources as opposed to size.
But judging resources solely by department size can be deceptive, cautions Martin Trow, a professor, emeritus, of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "Resources have to do with the wealth and policy of the university," Trow points out. "If you have a poor university or college, you can have 50 people and still be scrambling for secretarial help." Even if you do work in a big department with deep pockets, an unhelpful dean or department chairperson can hold that money close, Trow adds.

Some researchers predict that increasing interdisciplinary focus and new technology will make departmental size issues moot. Faculty in different biology, chemistry, and other science departments are collaborating and cross-listing courses more than ever. In such cases, a professor's day-to-day teaching and research may have little to do with his or her department, regardless of its size.

MOOT POINT: Paul Gross notes that specialization in science today makes department size irrelevant.
"The problem is that life sciences are now so diverse," says Paul R. Gross, a professor emeritus and former director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Their reach has extended so remarkably in the past two decades that it's impossible to have all the main life sciences covered by any one group of academics."

Meanwhile, E-mail and the Internet catapult researchers beyond their own departments into an international community of peers-what sociologists call the "invisible college" of experts in a particular subject area. "I have my own world that consists of people all over the world," explains Smith. "That looms very large in my research life. The people that most determine your career success are going to be those who [review] your grants, decide if your papers get published, et cetera. That's the invisible college at work."

With growing technology and interdisciplinary styles, Marshall adds, "it's only a matter of time before the artificial administrative barriers that define departments come crashing down. The world is not divided into parochial chunks of information, like narrow academic units. Only universities are divided that way."

Kathryn S. Brown is a freelance science writer based in Columbia, Mo.