The School of Packaging at Michigan State University needs more tenured professors—and needs them now. That was one of several points made during the Jan. 30, 2015, webcast debriefing from the Strategic Planning Committee to external stakeholders on the program’s strategy and future.
In an industry that is suffering from a too-shallow talent pool, adding more teachers might signal that a healthy influx of new packaging professionals will be forthcoming to fill the industry’s growing and urgent needs, which have amplified in recent years. But you might want to hold off popping the cork just yet.
Let’s start with the good news: More students are interested in a career in packaging these days. In the last couple years, the School of Packaging (SoP) has seen rapid increases in student numbers, from nearly 600 undergraduates in 2012 to about 700 in 2013 and almost 900 in 2014. Unfortunately, this growth came as resources were declining. In 2014, the student-to-faculty ratio was 73:1, up steeply from the 2012-2013 ratio of 58:1. When you compare this to the university’s average of 16:1, the weighty workload of the School of Packaging faculty becomes painfully obvious.
To address this, the SoP plans to add 10 teaching positions:
Four in the first year of the plan (3 tenure-system faculty and 1 fixed-term faculty);
Four in the second year (3 tenure-system faculty and 1 fixed-term faculty);
Two in the third year (both tenure-system faculty).
In addition to faculty additions, the SoP also plans to renovate classrooms, and add office and lab spaces, as well as invest in new equipment.
Yet SoP’s strategy also includes a plan to limit the number of undergraduates accepted to the program to about 125 per class year. Entry requirements will be stricter. A higher grade-point average will be needed to get into the program, for example.
When asked during the Q&A how the reduction in undergraduate students compares to other competing packaging schools, Dr. Susan Selke, School of Packaging interim director and professor, says, “We’re talking about continuing to graduate about 125 students a year. In the future, if we have more resources, we may be able to increase that number. We’ll see…when the time comes. We’re still going to be the biggest. I know we’re going to be the best.”
A similar question around cutting the number of students, obviously important to people in the industry tasked with staffing their packaging departments, was asked: “If there is still a shortage of packaging resources in the marketplace, wouldn't we be better served to embrace a higher volume of undergrads and hire even more resources? It seems that the massive checks we write for tuition may cover this.”
Selke replies, “That brings out the difference between academia and industry. If you produce more output, if you sell more products, you get more revenue coming in. If we produce more undergrads, we don't get more revenue coming in. So simply put, the way the university system functions, there is not a direct tie between the resources that we get and the amount of students we have. The president of the university has made it clear that Michigan State University can’t afford to supply the needs of the whole United States for packaging professionals.”
Teaching is just one of three missions of the School of Packaging after all. The other two areas, Research and Outreach, have suffered as Teaching has consumed the staff.
“That’s fundamentally why the student numbers have to go down in order for research productivity to get closer to where it needs to be,” Selke says, an important concern for a research-intensive university such as Michigan State.
Other noteworthy points
The harsh reality of dealing with finite resources didn’t dominate the entire presentation, which was mostly positive. Overall, the strategic goals are to:
• Decrease faculty teaching load;
• Enhance program rigor and efficiency;
• Reinvigorate/redefine packaging at MSU; and
• Increase research productivity.
Other topics covered in the 54-minute webcast were:
• Proposed curriculum revisions, including a concentration on separate majors in Packaging Science, Packaging Engineering and Packaging Management.
• Proposed ways to strengthen the graduate program.
• Potential new research areas/topics.
Additionally, the SoP has created three broad platforms of scholarly focus:
• Food, Health and Biomedical Packaging
• Packaging Materials and Sustainability
• Packaging Distribution and Value Chain
Watch the full debriefing here.