Hiring pause creates ripples in education

Last fall, upon concluding the Community Fund Drive, the University of Minnesota administration imposed a âÄúhiring pauseâÄù in anticipation of reduced state support. Faculty and staff positions that become vacant will not be refilled. Most searches for new faculty, including replacements, have been cancelled. Funding for teaching assistants is to be reduced. There will thus be fewer instructors to teach courses; therefore, fewer courses will be taught. Students will not be provided the full curricula they were offered when they decided to come to the University. Many students will be unable to complete their degree programs in their intended form âÄî at least not in a timely fashion. Programs that were already understaffed are being crippled and students are left with inadequate course offerings to meet their needs. Meanwhile, the administration proposes to raise tuition even higher. I invite the University community to consider how the administrationâÄôs cancellation of faculty searches comports with the UniversityâÄôs core mission and stated goals, the larger financial picture and the annual tuition hikes. Note that we are not talking about increasing the numbers of faculty through incremental hires, but simply about preserving what we had up through last spring. Having chaired one of the cancelled searches, I can attest that hiring new faculty is a labor-intensive process. My department, Classical and Near Eastern Studies , was conducting a search to replace a faculty member who departed the University last year. It is not a given that a professor who leaves the University will be replaced; the department must submit a request to the college to replace the position, and college approval is again required at every phase of the search. Last June, CNES received authorization from the College of Liberal Arts to search for a replacement in ancient religion. This position was meant to serve the newly-established undergraduate program in Religious Studies, which was identified as one of the UniversityâÄôs priorities in its latest strategic plan. We had almost carried the search to a successful conclusion; after the long process of reading applications and conducting preliminary interviews, we had identified three excellent candidates to invite to campus. Then, on Dec. 9, the bulk of our work having been completed, CLA notified CNES that our search was cancelled. We could do nothing but inform our 50 applicants that their trouble was in vain. We shall be unable to offer the courses the successful candidate would have come to the University to teach. The time and effort put forth by faculty, students and staff to conduct the search had been wasted. For what? To save the cost of hiring a starting assistant professor, whose salary would be in the range of $55,000 per year, plus benefits. Compare that to the salaries of top administrators and athletics coaches. ItâÄôs nice that the UniversityâÄôs top brass froze executive compensation upon imposing the hiring pause. But it doesnâÄôt hurt to have your salary frozen at several hundred thousand dollars per year. President Bob Bruininks said in a Dec. 4 e-mail message to employees that the administrationâÄôs objectives during the current economic crisis are to âÄúmaintain the core strength and quality of the UniversityâÄù and to âÄúincrease productivity âĦ while improving service and efficiency.âÄù How does cutting faculty positions serve to maintain quality? How does it improve service and efficiency to withdraw curriculum from students trying to complete degrees? How does it increase productivity to waste employeesâÄô time by canceling searches that are underway? I could have taught an entire course in the time I spent chairing the search in ancient religion or used that time for research. Besides reducing productivity, when the University administration throws our time away, it throws away its putative commitment to excellence. The administrationâÄôs communications addressing the UniversityâÄôs financial problems always refer to the state, the stateâÄôs budget deficit and the stateâÄôs appropriation to the University âÄî as if the hiring pause, with all its consequences, simply results from MinnesotaâÄôs strained economic situation. I submit that the UniversityâÄôs financial position would be much better now if the administration had not chosen to spend large sums on things it wanted, regardless of whether those things have anything to do with the UniversityâÄôs core academic mission. This past year has seen the purchase of a new financial system âÄî essentially a software package âÄî for the price of $50 million. The old financial system worked fine; the new one does not. Everyone can point to favorite examples of profligate spending, and most would point first at athletics (the costly new stadium and the high salaries of coaches) or at administration (the ever-increasing number of vice presidents), with its many âÄúinitiativesâÄù of dubious purpose and effectiveness (notably the Strategic Propaganda Initiative, as it would rightly be called). Few would point to academics and claim we have too many faculty teaching too many courses, doing too much research and working with too many students. But it is we who are the University: the faculty and students âÄî and, yes, the coaches, too âÄî together with the staff who facilitate our work. The administration is not the University but, properly, its servant. This administration serves the University ill by reducing faculty positions and thereby decimating academic programs. It does a disservice to students and, thus, to Minnesota by cutting instruction and curriculum while raising tuition. Students: You came here expecting better. DonâÄôt settle for less while youâÄôre asked to pay more. Eva von Dassow is an associate professor. Please send comments to [email protected]