Faculty Address Hiring Crisis

Meg Butler   
News Editor

On Friday April 8th, undergraduate faculty voted to pass a resolution rejecting the hiring freeze on tenure-line positions. The hiring freeze, allowing only for temporary visiting positions to be filled in all departments, began in March 2020. 

The hiring freeze began due to additional expenses during the pandemic, uncertainty about student enrollment, and the University’s ability to provide in-person classes. Despite the vacation of 27 tenure-line positions, no appointments have taken place.

Two professors in the English department, Pamela Macfie and Virginia Craighill, are set to retire this year. “Dr. Craighill teaches an array of important and highly popular courses, including the Tennessee Williams course she created. We don’t know who will teach her courses in the future,” says Macfie, who teaches Shakespeare, among other courses.

The English department was also recently approved for a new Creative Writing major. “In English, the greatest frustration is that we have a new major in Creative Writing, and at least one of the professorships linked to Creative Writing will be funded by the Tennessee Williams funding, so that would not have an impact on the general budget of the University. But the hiring freeze is absolute,” says Dr. Macfie. “We really can’t go forward with the major in creative writing with Kevin Wilson as our only tenured fiction writer.” 

Departments are authorized to hire visiting faculty on temporary bases. “There are limitations on hiring visiting faculty. For one thing, many applicants will opt out of a search if it’s just for a one-year position because they’re looking for a long term position. That’s particularly challenging as we’re trying to hire a more diverse faculty across the college,” says Dr. Jennifer Michael, former Chair of the English Department. Visiting professors do not advise students, serve on committees, or conduct undergraduate research, among other things that are only part of tenure-line positions. 

Visiting faculty currently employed for undergraduate teaching positions do not know whether they will stay at Sewanee long-term, as their positions are given on a year-to-year basis. “The timing of the hiring freeze meant that some on-going tenure-line faculty searches were paused. Paused searches left some positions completely vacant while others were temporarily converted to visiting positions with the expectation that they would convert back into tenure-track positions in the future. Few such conversions have happened, leaving some current visiting faculty members in extended periods of professional and financial uncertainty,” says Dr. Kikis, chair of the Biology department. 

Beginning in December 2021, program and department chairs lobbied the administration to reconsider the hiring freeze, especially considering the departments with large vacancies. Due to this organized push, the administration opened up seven positions for immediate tenure-track hiring. These searches are to take place this year and next. “While this represents some progress, and some willingness on the part of the administration to work with department and program chairs, it still leaves the college with 20 open tenure lines. The department and program chairs find this to be an inadequate response relative to the extent of the staffing crisis,” says Dr. Elrod, an associate professor of Economics. 

Due to faculty concern, a resolution was created to reject the across-the-board nature of the hiring freeze. The Resolution was developed by the department chairs and outlines how the faculty hiring freeze has impacted students and department strategic planning for the future. “The resolution articulated that the faculty feels that we are in crisis with the lack of tenure-line professors,” says Dr. Patterson, chair of the Politics department. The resolution points out that “decisions regarding tenure track hiring are rooted in confusing metrics and processes that other university divisions do not face” and that “the faculty hiring crisis results in part from the institution’s hiring priorities over the last two years. While twenty-seven tenure track faculty lines have gone unfilled, new administrative positions have been added.”

The resolution will be sent to the senate for approval and will be shared with the Board of Regents. The resolution was voted on by secret ballot and was supported by 96 professors in favor and 4 abstentions. No professors opposed the resolution. “We’re looking forward to next steps and working together as a collective body. The faculty feels very unified at this point. If we work in conjunction with the administration and students, we can see a path forward through the challenges that the institution faces,” says Dr. Patterson.