Faculty: Hiring pause starting to hurt students’ education

As the pause approaches its one-year anniversary, University employment is down about 600 employees.

Mackenzie Martin

As the University of Minnesota approaches the end of its first year under a system-wide hiring pause, some worry that the budget cuts have already had a negative effect on studentsâÄô education. University employment is down about 600 employees this year and in some departments the lack of employees has hurt curriculum and put a strain on teaching assistants, according to some faculty members. When budget cuts forced the political science department to reduce the size of its incoming graduate class by one-third this fall, professors had to look elsewhere to fill 10 of the departmentâÄôs teaching assistant (TA) positions. Fewer department dollars meant fewer graduate student positions, which translated into fewer TAs in the classrooms âÄî all on top of increased undergraduate enrollment. Teaching assistant Chris Strunk, like many grad students, is on double-duty this semester âÄî his 20 hours per week position is split between two different classes scheduled at the same time, under two different professors and in two different departments. While subject matter differences arenâÄôt an issue for Strunk, he said itâÄôs difficult having to split appointments, read twice the amount of course materials and do double the grading. His inability to focus on just one class could be affecting his students, too, he said. Strunk worries that in having to split his time between classes, his ability to have in-person interactions with students is lacking. âÄúItâÄôs a little bit difficult getting to know the students and IâÄôm sure theyâÄôre not as comfortable coming to talk to me because IâÄôm not in class regularly,âÄù Strunk said. Eva von Dassow, assistant professor in the department of classical and near eastern studies, is also concerned that as budgets are cut and positions are compromised, so is the quality of the education the University is able to provide for its students. Last year, DassowâÄôs departmentâÄôs request to fill a vacated faculty position was denied due to the hiring pause, after the department had already invested an estimated $15,000 into the search process, she said. Dassow said the departmentâÄôs curriculum offerings have dwindled as a result of the cuts, and she thinks studentsâÄô education will suffer because of it. âÄúItâÄôs clear that thereâÄôs high student interest [in the program]. WhatâÄôs not clear is if theyâÄôre going to be able to get what they need,âÄù Dassow said. Since its instatement last November, the hiring pause has required that each vacated non-student position be extensively reviewed and deemed necessary by administration before being refilled, with the intent to stunt new hires and ultimately reduce the UniversityâÄôs workforce. In his year-end budget update last June, University President Bob Bruininks announced plans to reduce the UniversityâÄôs workforce by more than 1,200 positions over the 2009-2010 school year to meet budget demands brought about in part by a $155 million decrease in state funding. In the update, Bruininks said about 370 layoffs would take place, and up to 160 student positions would be cut. The remaining reduction in workforce would come through a combination of early retirements and positions left unfilled. Over the past 12 months, about 230 layoffs and non-renewals of non-faculty employees have been reported. However, this number could be an underestimation, as colleges donâÄôt have to report layoffs until an employeeâÄôs notice rights period ends âÄî a time that varies between one and 12 months in length. Administration said the pause has helped the University cut costs, but some have questioned whether limiting employees is the right way to go about saving money. Vice president for human resources, Carol Carrier, said while lifting the hiring pause has been discussed, there are no immediate plans to do so.