Hiring freeze causes crisis in psychology department

Amelia Leaphart   

Although the hiring freeze began in March 2020, allowing hiring for only temporary, visiting positions, the freeze has continued for over two years, creating stress on every department due to tenured professors retiring or leaving. One department, however, has transitioned from stress to a moment of crisis: psychology.

Chair of the department, Dr. Al Bardi, has taught at Sewanee since 2008, and witnessed the growing popularity of his field among undergraduates. 

When he arrived, he was the sixth tenured track faculty member in psychology, and now there are nine. However, in the past couple of years five tenured-track professors have left. 

Bardi says, “The assumption is generally that unless there is a financial problem, that when somebody leaves a tenured track position that you will hire to replace it. Starting with the pandemic, but continuing past the pandemic the freeze has remained in place, and we’ve now lost five people, which we haven’t been allowed to replace.”

When the first two people left, the remaining tenured professors were able to spread interdepartmental work such as mentoring, advising, and service to the department among remaining members. According to Bardi, the most recent departures created this “moment of crisis.” Now, the remaining faculty are struggling to cover the basics.

“For myself, I’m teaching an overload. I’m chairing the department, but I’m not taking the time for courses that I ordinarily take,” he says. 

Bardi right now is teaching a research methods course with a laboratory, a required class for psychology majors, and a challenging course for a visiting professor to teach. The chair of the department teaching a required course, for Bardi, serves as an indication of inadequate faculty numbers. In the fall, the student-professor ratio in psychology will roughly be 34 – one (one tenured track faculty). In the English department, the student number is around 10. 

“So that means a very different experience for students in psychology than students in other majors,” Bardi says.

Tammy Rodriguez (C’24) came into Sewanee wanting to major in psychology. Luckily, she was placed into Introduction to Psychology as a freshman, giving her an advantage over other prospective majors. 

“I’ve been pretty lucky getting all the classes I needed, but I’ve noticed it gets more difficult each semester,” Rodgriguez says.

When deciding on colleges, Rodriguez notes how Sewanee advertised psychology as a larger department, which was one of the factors in choosing her undergraduate school. 

The research methods course is usually only taught once every semester and is needed to progress into upper-level courses, making it an extremely competitive course, with the waitlists reaching fifteen people. 

“I was so stressed trying to find my advisor this year. Only one of the professors I’ve had is tenured, and the rest were visiting professors I had on Zoom [2020-2021 academic year], so I didn’t really get to build much of a connection with them. I was struggling with only having one professor as an option to go to as my advisor.”

A couple professors were already full with advisees and declined Rodriguez’s request, but she eventually found professor John Coffey. Now that Coffey is leaving Rodriguez will be randomly placed  with a remaining faculty member.

“That’s another issue, not having a stable, consistent experience when it comes to advisors,” Rodriguez says. 

However, Bardi points out that other departments are hurting, but psychology, by chance, is struggling more. 

“Departments go through different phases. Maybe they’ll have fifteen years of stability where hardly anybody leaves or is replaced, and certainly we’ve had periods of stability…so just by chance we’ve had departures. Our most recent departures told me they had a great experience in the department, they just made a different choice,” Bardi says.

The psychology department requires several core classes, laboratory classes, the research methods class, and seminars in the senior year. 

In regards to the registration process, Bardi says, “Even fully staffed [nine tenured-track faculty], at the level of majors that we have… we’ve struggled with meeting needs… students have to prioritize because of competition, but it’s not a problem.”

Coping with the hiring freeze, the department is hiring visiting faculty next year. 

“We’re worried about the market, it’s a weird time with the pandemic, so it’s problematic that we’re not hiring on the tenured-track,” Bardi says.

Bardi is more worried about meeting needs such as advising, mentorship, and student-research experiences over class numbers. 

“We were allowed to put out one ad to hire a person on the tenured-track, but it was so late in the hiring cycle,” he says.

From what Bardi hears from colleagues at other institutions is that people are feeling less mobile.

“Sewanee is a remote place, and it’s a lot to move here for a year,” Bardi says.

“I’ve been very proud of my colleagues, not just in the department but the faculty, in the way the last two or three weeks we’ve come together in a very united way to let the administration know how important these faculty positions are…I was very touched when we had a faculty meeting a couple-weeks ago, when we had faculty from all over the institution stand-up and talk about how important it is that we have the time and support to interact with students in our community in a variety of ways. Making that difficult really harms the heart of our institution. It’s not really about my department, even though my department, by chance, is in a very difficult position right now, it’s really about all the faculty and all the students.”

The administration shifted their timeline in preventing a further hiring delay into next year.  However, according to Bardi, the administration has not changed their position on significantly reducing the numbers of tenure-track faculty and “are not close to an agreement” with the faculty. 

Part of the administration’s reasoning for the hiring freeze is a national decrease in 18-25 year-olds, therefore creating the possibility for lower enrollment. 

“But my position, and the position of a lot of faculty, is that we should hire to meet the needs of the students now. Delaying is just harming students now for fear of low-enrollment in the future, and I simply don’t agree with that. We’re an institution of enormous resources and a strong endowment.” Bardi says.

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