Faculty debates statistics fate

By Melissa Prentice

Arizona Daily Wildcat

It is not which department offers statistics classes, but the quality of the professors who teach the classes that is important, students and faculty said yesterday.

The faculty members and graduate students spoke at a forum held by the Faculty Senate committee that is studying the proposed elimination of the statistics department. Last semester, President Manuel T. Pacheco seconded Provost Paul Sypherd's recommendation to eliminate statistics, physical education and journalism.

Committee members suggested the idea of combining statistics with the math department, an idea which they said duplicates about 50 percent of the statistics programs in the country.

Some of the supporters said this proposal could work, as long as statisticians, and not mathematicians, taught the classes.

"Where the home really rests is not as important as who the faculty are," said Duane Sherrill, a biostatistician at the College of Medicine. "The excellent teaching of statistics could continue as long as we get statisticians in there, but I have a feeling that wouldn't be the case."

"The best teaching comes in courses you are interested in and the best communicating occurs in classes you are familiar with," he said.

But Yashaswini Mittal, statistics department head, said although this proposal may work at other universities, it is "not a possibility on this campus."

"Quality statistics education will fail if we cannot attract quality statisticians to this university," she said. "And these scholars will not be able to trust the university and prosper here. Quality scholars would not touch this university with a ten-foot pole for years to come."

When Mittal was hired, the university made a commitment to give her the resources to build up the program, but never followed through, said William Faris, a mathematics professor.

He said the poor state of the department prior to Mittal's arrival shows that the department could not succeed without strong leadership and financial resources from the university. Within the mathematics department, statistics would have to compete with other areas for limited resources, he said.

Combining the statistics program with math would be "turning back the progress" and statistics courses taught in a combined department would likely be "routinized" and "low quality," Faris said.

Like the journalism and physical education departments, which also face possible elimination, the statistics department has been criticized for its lack of research money generated, and praised for its concentration on teaching.

While Mittal said the department has done well regarding research grants based on the limited time the program has been in operation, she said her primary allegiance is to teaching.

"The statistics department is not going down because of budget problems. It is going down because no one cares about the teaching of statistics students," she said.

Other supporters stressed the role that statistics plays in research in all areas at the university.

"Eliminating the statistics department would have a negative impact on graduate students in all basic sciences," said Craig Abbey, a graduate student studying applied mathematics.

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