University Hiring Freeze Crisis: Thaw in Sight

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

On April 8, the University faculty passed a resolution in a near unanimous vote calling for immediate action to address the “dire need” created by 27 open tenure track positions resulting from the hiring freeze that began in March 2020. Of the faculty attending the meeting, 96 voted in favor of the resolution, 4 abstained, and none were opposed. By month’s end, the number of open tenure track positions had risen to 29. The freeze “has gutted course offerings and led to insufficient tenure-line faculty to carefully and consistently engage with students,” the resolution argued, with students struggling to find advisors and shutout of required courses. Now, though, hope has pushed its way to center stage.

“The hiring freeze is thawing,” said associate professor of history Nick Roberts.

According to acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner and acting Provost Scott Wilson, in response to the resolution, the University has authorized hiring 15 tenure track faculty over the next two years, nine in the academic year 2022-2023.

The hiring freeze was put in place due to uncertainty about future enrollment, Berner and Wilson explained. Roberts said initially the reason “made sense” given the pandemic. But the administration also voiced concerns about the anticipated “demographic cliff” which projected a drastically reduced number of students attending college by 2026.

Berner said the hiring freeze remained in effect as part of the strategic planning process to evaluate “curricular renewal and innovation.” In December 2021, department chairs identified acute needs in the departments of psychology, mathematics, and politics. The administrations authorized hiring several tenure track professors, but some searches failed to yield results. Watching the precipitous decline in tenured faculty, professors worried entire programs and departments would be cut, said Jennifer Mathews, chair of the theater department. “It’s like we’re trying to go into 2026 in a weak position,” Mathews insisted. Meanwhile, “The students we have in 2022 are suffering.” In the psychology department where the tenured faculty has decreased by more than half, tenured faculty must advise two dozen or more students. Only tenured faculty have the experience needed to serve as advisors and to serve on committees, Berner acknowledged, roles visiting professors cannot fill.

University records show from the spring of 2020 to the spring of 2022, visiting professors increased from 27 to 38 and full-time faculty decreased from 146 to 136. (Note: full-time professors include teaching professors hired on five-year contracts.)

Some visiting asssistant professors (VAPs) have served on the faculty almost five years, on contracts typically renewed annually, said one VAP who spoke anonymously to the Messenger. He moonlights at a second job to make ends meet and regrets not having more time for his students. Set to interview for a tenure track position when the hiring freeze went into effect, now his life is on hold. He has applied for other positions and may leave academia. He takes hope in recently being offered a three-year VAP contract. Mathews said VAPs hire in at just $45,000 annually. She pointed to a VAP who recently took a tenured position at another college with a far higher pay scale.

Easing the faculty’s concerns about elimination of departments and programs, Wilson, who heads up the strategic planning process, said, the University intended to “avoid eliminating programs with tenure track positions…a goal [is] to have 80 percent of the faculty in academic departments be tenure-track faculty or teaching professors.” Increasing the number of teaching professors was not part of “the overall plan,” Berner noted. Two of the nine positions to be filled this year are in the department of psychology and two are in the department of mathematics, departments with multiple open tenure track lines.

“Hopefully things will be more reassuring once we have these positions filled,” Roberts observed. “The town is the college, and the college is the town.”

Echoing the sentiment of everyone interviewed for this story, Berner said, “We all have the same objective, supporting our students, faculty, and employees. We’re all pulling together in the same direction.”

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