September 26, 2007

Mining Faculty in the United States: Current Status and Sustainability

By McCarter, M K

The history of mining education, like the history of the mining industry, is typified by "boom and bust" cycles. In academia, the perpetual problem can be stated as "too many graduates for the jobs or too many jobs for the graduates." The deep "bust cycle" that spanned the 1990s through 2003 spawned renewed efforts to eliminate, consolidate, restructure, rename, reinvent or otherwise change mining education to make it (for some) more fiscally or socially acceptable. During this period, a number of mining programs were eliminated, and by the late 1990s senior people in academia and their counterparts in industry became increasing concerned about the very real possibility that strategic disciplines may disappear altogether. As a result, the Mining and Metallurgy Society of America (MMSA) created an educational committee to explore how industry could help preserve key programs necessary to provide future professionals. Several meetings were held to assess the problems and look for solutions. In 2004, this effort culminated in the first of the "Engineering Education" sessions to be held at the SME Annual Meetings. In response to the information presented in this first meeting, Marc Le Vier (then president of MMSA) invited a number of the participants to reconvene the following day. An action plan was formulated and a task force was organized. To more fully represent all industry sectors, SME later that year assumed the sponsorship role for the task force.

To obtain factual information concerning the state and sustainability of minerals education, a survey was completed in the fall of 2004. This survey focused only on accredited mining engineering programs. There were 13 at that time. The intention of the task force was to obtain similar information for other minerals programs such as mineral processing, geological engineering, geophysical exploration and similar programs at risk (Freeman, 2004).

These efforts were specifically directed to the growing shortage of graduates. But the results indicated another problem that had not at that time been given much consideration - the dwindling number of faculty.

This article presents the results of a January 2007 survey that included the original 13 programs plus Michigan Tech and New Mexico Tech. The author also summarizes current conditions as they relate to mining and mineral engineering faculty in the United States.

The author expresses great appreciation to the department heads who participated in the 2004 and 2007 surveys. There is never a shortage of questionnaires to complete, and time required to research and complete surveys never comes easily. It is, however, noteworthy that every questionnaire sent was returned completed. This level of participation attests to the dedication of the chairs and their efforts to maintain a strong academic basis for the mining profession.

Academic qualifications

Impending retirement of a large portion of the professional work force is a problem, not only for industry, but academia as well. Frequently, the suggested solution for the faculty shortage is to have experienced professionals transition from industry to teaching. This appears logical since industry personnel frequently retire in their mid-50s with a wealth of knowledge that could be passed on to the younger generation.

Indeed, this has occurred in the past and is a valuable current resource. They, and others who teach on a contract basis, as opposed to those in tenured or tenure-track positions, are an important part of the educational process. They comprise about 29 percent of the current teaching staff in mining programs. Some of our industry colleagues wonder why teaching on a contract basis is not the norm rather than the exception and frequently question the need for tenure.

In order to understand the current state regarding faculty, a few comments about tenure are in order. Tenure is one of the three pillars of academic governance. The other two are academic freedom and self governance (Ekdale, 2006). Academic government is a form of democracy that predates the political model that is followed in the United States. Self governance requires that all tenure and tenure- track faculty must follow policy promulgated by the faculty in their respective disciplines (departments) and ratified by larger groups representing faculty across campus (academic senates). These policies apply to university presidents as well as assistant professors. Policies concerning appointment, retention, advancement and tenure are usually well defined, and individual departments are not free to redefine them at will.

Early on, academic freedom was not guaranteed. For this reason, tenure was established to prevent dismissal of faculty simply because they may teach concepts contrary to those held by superiors or patrons. Academic freedom is essential to learning and progress. Today, because of well accepted academic policy and legal constraints, faculty need not feel bound to think or teach according to traditional concepts. What they do teach must, however, be logical, and not arbitrary or capricious or they will be subject to sanctions imposed by their colleagues.

Tenure is often considered synonymous with job security. After all, that is how it got started. Why then is tenure now one of the pillars of academic governance if academic freedom is essentially guaranteed? Quite simply, tenure is a hurdle that must be achieved within a given period of time or the faculty member is dismissed. While in tenure-track, a faculty member is reviewed annually by students and colleagues within his or her academic unit. The purpose of the review is to recommend retention or dismissal. Once tenure is achieved, the faculty member is no longer subject to annual reviews. Tenure, then, is a critical component in self governance and necessary to assure that the best and most deserving faculty are retained. Many larger universities, however, are adopting the policy of reviewing tenured faculty on a five-year schedule (Murray, 2007).

Review for tenure is a formidable process. It is equivalent to having an employee serve five to seven years and then have his or her performance reviewed by subordinates, peers and superiors in the same organization, and national and international experts in the person's field. The weight of evidence must clearly justify that the employee is meeting expectations. If not, the employee would be dismissed.

Tenure does help ensure that a program will have a critical number of full-time teachers. This is necessary to provide stability and continuity from year to year. Otherwise, students would have little assurance that the program will continue through the four to five years necessary to obtain an undergraduate degree or two to five years necessary to obtain a graduate degree. Tenure, therefore, does provide the promise of job security for the faculty and assurance for continuation of the curriculum for the students.

In cases of financial exigency or lack of enrollment, institutions may choose or be forced to eliminate an entire program. If the entire program is abandoned, academic policy may allow termination of all faculty in the program including those with tenure. Frequently, tenured faculty will be given an opportunity to fill other vacancies in allied disciplines, but there is no guarantee. This little known fact is a good reason to avoid merging typically small mining programs into larger departments. If a crisis occurs, the specialty (mining engineering or geotechnical engineering, for example) within the program can be treated in a like manner and can usually be eliminated with less formality.

The purpose of digressing into the topic of tenure is to explain why this paper focuses only on tenure and tenure-track positions and why recruiting new teachers is a challenging issue. It is a challenge because PhD students typically take five or more years to complete their work beyond the undergraduate degree. The probationary period is then another seven years. On top of that, the starting salary is not much greater than the salary currently being offered to bachelor of science graduates.

Historical perspective

Figure 1 presents the number of mining engineering and mineral engineering programs during the past 25 years. During this period, there have been 27 schools (Table 1) offering degrees in these disciplines. As shown on the figure, the maximum number of programs was 25 for any given year. The bold text (not shaded) in Table 1 indicates programs that are currently listed in the SME Guide to Mineral Schools (2007).

Of the current schools identified in Table 1, there are 14 mining engineering programs. Twelve of them are now accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). One mineral engineering program is also ABET accredited ( Mining engineering, mineral processing and mineral engineering are often referred to collectively as mineral engineering. It is important to recognize, however, that each discipline is unique and each has different ABET criteria.

Figure 2 presents the 25-year history in terms of number of faculty in mining engineering programs Figure 3 shows the number of faculty in mineral engineering for the same time period. The downward trend is obvious in Figure 2. It is interesting to note that the decline is much more pronounced for assistant professors than for the higher ranks. This pattern is likely the result of normal progression from assistant to associate to professor - in other words, a maturing and somewhat static population. It may also reflect junior faculty who fail to achieve tenure and programs that initially appoint faculty at higher ranks. A similar pattern is suggested by Fig. 3 with a renewed cycle starting in 2001. The 2007 survey of mining faculty revealed an unusual level of activity during the past two years. The very somber mood among mining and mineral schools before 2004 has come full circle and is now optimistic. As mentioned before, the 2004 survey considered only 13 mining engineering programs. The 2007 survey included New Mexico Tech and Michigan Tech even though Michigan Tech is now technically in suspension and not likely to be reinstated. Table 2 summarizes the changes that have occurred during the past two years.

Comparing the 2007 and 2004 surveys revealed an astonishing degree of resilience in the mining schools. All but two of the positions vacated by retirements in the last two years have been filled. As shown in Table 3, the difference between the number of retirements (11) and the number of new hires (nine) equals two. (The sources of the new hires are shown in Fig. 4.) Consequently, there are two less faculty members in 2007 relative to 2004.

However, eight institutions increased their number of budgeted tenure-track lines relative to the 2004 survey. The total increase for these eight programs amounts to 11 positions. One program reported a reduction of three budgeted tenure-track lines relative to 2004, providing a net increase of eight positions for all 15 mining and mineral engineering programs (78 positions in 2004 plus eight new positions = 86). The program reporting a reduction is currently being phased out.

It is likely that the optimistic behavior demonstrated by the eight programs has been encouraged by the resurgence in the mining industry. But how did the addition of positions come about in such a short period of time? Further investigation indicates that two of the 11 positions were created as a result of direct funding from industry. At least two positions were added as a result of intervention by industry and/or alumni. Some positions were added through strategic decisions by institutions. The two chairs created by industry were for faculty with expertise in mineral processing.

Historically, mineral processing dealt almost exclusively to beneficiation of ores. Currently, it includes coal cleaning and processing as well as crushing and sizing of aggregates. It is becoming more common for mining engineering programs to include faculty with expertise in mineral processing. This may be in response to the recent decline in traditional extractive metallurgy programs in the U.S.

Faculty demographics

One of the objectives of the 2007 survey was to determine the ages of current faculty in mining and mineral engineering and to assess the accuracy of retirement projections provided in the 2004 survey. Figure 5 compares the age histograms for both the 2004 and 2007 surveys. The average age is about the same for both populations. There are, however, significant differences in the distributions. The 2007 survey shows an increase in the number of younger faculty entering the academic ranks. It also shows a build- up of older faculty, indicating an impending number of retirements. Both distributions include the same original 13 mining engineering programs but do not include Michigan Tech and New Mexico Tech.

In the 2004 survey, department chairs were asked to estimate the number of retirements expected for three time periods: 0 to 2 years out (2004-2006), 2 to 5 years out (2006-2009) and 5 to 10 years out (2009-2014). The results are summarized on Fig. 6. In the 2007 survey, the chairs estimated the expected retirements for the periods: 0 to 2 years out (2007-2009) and 2 to 5 years out (2009- 2012). The results are summarized on Fig. 7.

In 2004, the estimated number of retirements for the subsequent two-year period was five. The actual number for the corresponding programs is seven. In addition to the seven retirements of tenured faculty, three faculty changed schools and four tenured faculty in programs at Michigan Tech and New Mexico Tech also retired. The conclusion is that the 2004 estimate was fairly accurate although slightly understated.

Based on actual retirements for the past two years and the 2007 estimate for the next two years, a total of 15 are expected to retire. That number agrees very well with the 16 projected to retire in the first two time periods on Fig. 6 (2004 to 2009). The cumulative estimate of 35 retirements for the period 2004 to 2014 predicted from Fig. 6 is now predicted to occur before 2012, according to Fig. 7. Consequently, retirements are expected to be a little ahead of schedule (as predicted in 2004) for the short-and long-term.

Anticipated PhD graduates

In the next two years, eight faculty are expected to retire, but Fig. 5 shows 11 faculty will be 67 or older by the end of the two- year period and could retire. These potential retirements, along with the 10 open positions in mining engineering, may result in a need for as many as 21 new faculty members in the next two years. The 2007 survey provides information concerning the number of PhD graduates currently in the pipeline. The number of graduates anticipated by year is shown on Fig. 8.

Figure 8 indicates the number of PhDs expected to graduate in 2007 is more than enough to cover the anticipated retirements. However, the anticipated graduation of PhDs is almost always overestimated, as shown on Fig. 9. As can be seen on this figure, history shows that about 10 graduates can be expected each year for a total enrollment of about 60. Total enrollment has increased to about 100, so more than 10 can be expected to graduate per year in the short-term.

The 2007 survey also asked department chairs to indicate the likelihood that current PhD students will enter the teaching profession. This information is summarized on Fig. 10.

As can be seen, only about four of the 27 to graduate in 2007 and about seven of the 18 to graduate in 2008 are likely to become teachers. There are several in the maybe category, but given the tendency to overestimate the expected number of graduates, it is unlikely that the demand for faculty during the next two years can be met by currently enrolled PhD students.

In addition, the survey provided information concerning the specializations needed to maintain the strength of the academic programs and the thesis topics of PhD students. An abbreviated summary of this information appears on Fig. 11. Only those specializations selected four or more times are summarized. The specializations in red text were also identified as critical areas in the 2004 survey. As can be seen, more students are pursuing mineral processing, rock mechanics and computer applications than the anticipated need. This is not necessarily bad, since there is no guarantee all students will ultimately graduate nor that all will pursue careers in teaching. It does indicate that faculty vacancies in these two areas are more likely to be filled. Faculty vacancies in those areas where the number of students is less than the perceived need are more likely not to be filled.

In filling future faculty vacancies, departments are likely to be more interested in the ability of candidates to teach and to initiate and carry out research in their specific specializations as long as the specializations are in areas where funding is likely. Candidates with a good background in mining subjects or industry experience can usually do an acceptable job in teaching courses at an undergraduate level. Success in teaching, research and scholarly work will ultimately be the deciding factors in retention and tenure decision. It is in the best interest of the department and, ultimately, the candidate to select faculty replacements that have the highest potential for success in the tenure process.


* Tenure is an essential process to attract and retain the most competent faculty and to ensure continuation of academic programs.

* Fewer than half of the PhD graduates from mining programs are likely to pursue teaching as a career.

* There is currently a shortage of qualified candidates to fill faculty vacancies.

* As many as 21 new faculty members may be needed in the next two years.

* Dissertation topics for current PhD students compared with the expertise needed for future faculty hires appear adequate for mineral processing, rock mechanics and computer applications. But they are inadequate for surface and underground hard rock mine design and operations, ventilation and aggregate mining. (Results of the 2004 survey also indicated expected shortages for mine power and monitoring, underground coal mine design and operations, mineral economics, mine management, permitting and law, and health and safety.)

* Action is needed to encourage the "best and brightest" to pursue education as a career.

Positive steps to assure faculty sustainability include:

* Stabilize existing mining programs by establishing endowed faculty positions funded by industry and/or alumni.

* Assist qualified and experienced persons who aspire to teaching positions by providing financial support to complete their PhD degrees. For example, the proposed SME PhD Fellowship Program.

* Establish a national board consisting of representa tives of industry, academia and government to assist in competitive funding of research proposals. The missionof this board would be to identify needed mining research, sources of funds and potential investigators. In evaluating proposals, the board could assist new faculty by providing feedback on how to improve proposals and opportunities for funding. * Establish targeted research funding to ensure the perpetuation of critical expertise. Research funding is also needed for summer salary for faculty to make teaching economically attractive relative to industry positions.


Ekdale, A.A., 2006. personal correspondence.

Freeman, L.W., 2004, "Programs at Risk (PARs)," presentation at MineExpo 2004, Las Vegas, NV, September 2004.

Murray, B.. 1999, "Changes are Coming Soon in Academic-Tenure System," APA Monitor Online, ( tenure.html).

SME, 1982 to 2001, SME Guide to Mineral Schools. Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME), Inc., Littleton, CO.

SME, 2003 to 2007, SME Guide to Mineral and Material Science Schools, Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME), Inc, Littleton, CO.

M.K. McCarter

M.K. McCarter, member SME, is professor, Department of Mining Engineering, Universily at Utah, 135 S 1460 E - Room 313, Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0113, [email protected]

Copyright Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, Inc. Sep 2007

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