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Higher education is COVID-19-positive. And in the parlance of triage, the patient needs emergent care.

At many institutions, that means getting just enough instruction and support online to be able to operate tomorrow, and having enough money to do so. Everything else can wait, including faculty hiring. Already, scores of colleges and universities have announced hiring freezes for this year fiscal year and the next one.

“Institutional leaders are trying to do the prudent thing and trying to take control of some of the aspects of the situation that they’re able to control, and that includes things like job actions and hiring freezes,” said Kevin McClure, assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “It’s about managing the situation now to minimize potential financial impacts later.”

In other words, McClure said, “Many of us would prefer to do hiring freezes now and postpone [capital] projects if it means we can avoid layoffs later.”

The uncertainties surrounding coronavirus certainly give pause: When will it abate and how will enrollments be affected? Will state funding take a nosedive and will donations dry up given the worsening economy? Previous recessions have seen a rise in enrollment by would-be workers without jobs, but what will a recession in the middle of a pandemic look like?

No Immunity From Uncertainty

For wealthier institutions, all these questions throw the financial viability of growth and previously calculated risks -- such as adding new programs and faculty -- up in the air. For less resourced institutions, these questions put their very futures at risk. And so the colleges and universities to announce hiring freezes thus far range from endowment-rich Ivies to smaller, less stable private colleges to flagship and regional publics. No one is immune from the question marks.

Richard Locke, Brown University’s provost, and Deborah Chernow, the university's vice president for finance and administration, wrote in a memo last week that all of Brown's faculty and staff hiring is suspended through next summer.

“This is not an easy decision to make,” they wrote, “but it is warranted to ensure that we have the resources to continue to engage in exceptional teaching, research and service; be an employer of choice and support our current faculty and staff; and partner with Providence and Rhode Island to support increasing local community needs.”

In another example, Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and Ken Horstman, interim vice president for human resources there, announced that they are “looking down the road at the acute need to work together to ensure proper fiscal stewardship of the university. We are asking that departments make no new hires at this time.”

Minnesota also asked departments with “current hires preparing to start work at the university” to consider delaying their start dates.

What does that mean, exactly? Minnesota’s HR office advised that “delaying a start date might be justified for a variety of reasons such as to allow time to obtain equipment needed to enable new employees to work from home, to allow time to plan a productive onboarding and orientation processes, and to make needed adjustments to responsibilities to ensure new employee productivity and likelihood for success.” This guidance, the department said, “is particularly focused on ensuring consideration of the activities that may need to happen prior to a start date.”

A spokesperson for Minnesota noted that the hiring freeze is “not absolute.” Exempt categories include those for COVID-19-related positions in direct care, research and support, along with mission-essential personnel and those positions fully funded by grants, foundations or other external resources.

Like some other colleges and universities that have frozen hiring, Minnesota also has announced a suspension of bonuses, “one-off” pay changes and job reclassifications.

“We understand and appreciate that many employees are going above and beyond their job duties and you want to reward them,” Gabel and Horstman’s letter said. “We are all grateful for their efforts.” Yet focus must be “on the public health and operational challenges ahead of us.”

Robert Zemsky, higher education division chair at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures Across a Crowded Market, said he regularly speaks to a group of college presidents as a kind of “remote crisis team.”

Those presidents are talking about refunding students and asking, “If this totally FUBARs all of our admissions cycles, are we going to open in September?” Zemsky said. Read: they are not talking about faculty hiring.

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, agreed that “With so many unknowns, institutions are doing the right thing by freezing or carefully scrutinizing every current and potential search.”

The “level of confidence” that administrators have about coming fiscal year budgets is not what it was even a few weeks ago, Brantley said. “The financial challenges impacting institutions for this academic year will undoubtedly impact our budgets for next year.”

Systemic Collapse?

Even if administrators are making the right calls, the hiring freezes have implications for an already brutal tenure-track job market. Next year’s hiring cycle could be nonexistent. As for this year, many searches were wrapped up prior to the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Those professors will presumably start in the fall, as planned. But some searches were ongoing.

Dessie Lee Clark, who recently earned her doctorate in community sustainability from Michigan State University, was thrilled to make it onto several short lists and receive campus visit invites this year. The search committee for one job she’s particularly interested in seems to be trying to find a way to complete the process virtually, she said. Information is generally hard to come by, however, with seemingly interchangeable references to hiring freezes and chills and search cancellations.

In one sense, Clark said, this “feels awful. It’s so unprecedented that no one can really give you advice on how to deal with the market right now.” On the other hand, she added, “We are all in it together. So there is some solidarity around the fact this is happening to us collectively and it’s not personal.”

For current faculty members, hiring freezes mean another year of unauthorized faculty searches. Nick Fleisher, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and president of its American Association of University Professors chapter, said his department’s requests for a faculty search were already rebuffed prior to COVID-19 due to budget constraints. Building his department’s full-time faculty roster back up to nine, where it was two years ago, from seven, where it is now, is that much more of a pipe dream now.

At the department level, Fleisher said that having fewer professors means not being able to offer as rich of a graduate program in linguistics as the faculty would like. Not even the state’s flagship, Madison, has a graduate program in linguistics, he said, and so there is pressure to create a program that meets the state’s needs.

The vast majority of Milwaukee’s departments are in the same shape: Fleisher said the university has lost about 15 percent of its professors in four years, due in part to changes to the state’s tenure system, while hiring has been minimal due to declining enrollment.

Nevertheless, Fleisher said his administration has been “thoughtful, detailed and responsive” to faculty members’ various concerns about the hiring freeze, a related suspension of discretionary raises and a voluntary retirement program.

As hard as it is to swallow, he understands. Across academe, however, he said he worried that hiring freezes -- however well communicated to tenure-line faculty members -- will mean even more uncertainty for adjuncts around hiring. That is, administrators will eventually move out of this first triage phase and begin to think about staffing the next few terms, possibly with little notice.

Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and founder of the academic career consultancy The Professor Is In, started a crowdsourced list of institutions that are freezing hiring. She’s also already seen some questionable behavior on the part of institutions concerning tenure-track jobs. Verbal offers that had progressed to negotiation have been revoked.

Previously, a similar move might have led to naming and shaming the institution. Not now.

“There is no pushback,” Kelsky said. “This is systemic collapse.”

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