Exceptions to the Rule

Cash-strapped colleges are freezing faculty hires, but the exceptions reveal institutions' highest priorities in increasingly desperate times.

November 25, 2008

In sunny Orlando, Fla., where the temperature rarely dips below 32 degrees, residents seldom talk of a “freeze.” And even now, 12 months after the University of Central Florida placed a “freeze” on hiring, Terry Hickey remains reluctant to use the term.

“We’ve allowed people to apply for exceptions, so I tend to describe what we’ve done as a hiring ‘heavy frost’ rather than a ‘freeze,’” says Hickey, provost at Central Florida.

As budget cuts force more colleges across the country to curtail hiring, many are still finding ways to fill positions in crucial areas.

Photo: University of Central Florida

Terry Hickey, provost at the University of Central Florida, approved some exceptions to a hiring freeze.

While definitions of “crucial” vary from college to college, most are trying valiantly -- or desperately -- to preserve basic teaching functions. Universities such as Cornell and Brown have managed to move forward with faculty searches while freezing staff hirings, but less wealthy institutions increasingly lack that luxury.

In the early weeks and months of Central Florida’s “frost,” Hickey approved a number of exceptions, allowing hires of academic advisers and faculty who would teach a significant number of core curriculum courses.

“Hiring a researcher in an area was a smaller priority,” he says. “We didn’t necessarily need that to survive.”

In recent months, Hickey says, fewer deans are even seeking exceptions at all. If state lawmakers cut higher education by another 6 percent or 7 percent this fiscal year, as Hickey suspects they will, Central Florida will have lost about $44.5 million, or 16 percent of its state budget, since July 1. Given these dire fiscal circumstances, Hickey has warned deans that moving ahead with hires may not be in their best interest.

“Given the cuts they’ve already had to make, they understand it’s a hell of a lot easier to take money out of a vacant position than it is to decide who you are going to send a pink slip,” Hickey says.

Williams Stresses Tenure Track Hires

The economic downturn is forcing a conversation about priorities on even some of the most well-heeled of college campuses, as evidenced by the recent deliberations of the Committee on Appointments and Promotions at Williams College. The six-person committee, which is made up of high-level administrators and some elected faculty, recently reviewed faculty searches that had been authorized last spring before the economy took a dive.

Bill Wagner, dean of faculty at Williams and a member of the committee, says the group outlined a series of criteria required for moving ahead with searches. A premium was placed on filling vacancies that, if unfilled, would prevent students from progressing through majors. Beyond that concern, the committee focused on meeting a few long-term hiring goals, rather than simply plugging a lot of holes with temporary solutions.

“It would make more sense to give preference, therefore, to those [tenure track] positions, as opposed to trying to replace tenure track positions with visiting positions in the short term,” Wagner says. “We think that’s a shortsighted policy.”

The committee ultimately approved six of 14 previously authorized searches for tenure track faculty, and approved about one-third of the more than 20 proposed visiting professorship searches.

Tough Choices in Washington

Given the bleak economic outlook for many colleges, it might make sense for deans to fight for every position they can get right now -- in the fear that things are only going to get worse. But Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington, says it would be a strategic misstep to rush to fill every vacancy at this point. Faculty retirements may be slowing in the economic downturn, but as for the coming years, Cauce says she’s concerned about losing faculty in vital positions.

“When I say ‘yes’ to any of these hires, I’m making a very serious commitment of resources,” she says. “I can’t imagine playing the game where I say I’m going to go ahead and fill this position which would have been my 15th priority.”

Washington, which took a $10 million cut from its $402 million state budget earlier this year, is in the midst of a hiring freeze. At the same time, the university is about 1,100 students over its enrollment goal -- a fact Cauce attributes to students deciding to pursue double majors or additional courses rather than take their chances in the tightening job market.

“Here we are in a situation that is unusual in a market economy, where demand is up but we’re cutting back,” she says. “I think that’s the management conundrum that makes it so difficult.”

In short, deans at Washington are struggling with how to teach more students with less money. In that environment, Cauce says she’s stressed the need to maintain offerings of “gateway courses” that students need as prerequisites. To do that, the college may have to hire more contingent faculty in the short-term, she said. But tenure track faculty may see their job descriptions changing, too.

“If we have someone that has not been as productive in research recently, I am raising the question with chairs: Should that person have the same teaching load as someone who is more research productive?”

“It’s complex,” Cauce says, “and quite frankly I’m not making anybody real happy.”


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