June 6, 2022
Dear Student Leaders:
Thank you for your letter of concern about the tenure-track hiring situation in the College of Arts and Sciences. The administrators to whom you directed your letter share your concern about the quality of the curriculum in the College, class sizes, and registration challenges. While we acknowledge that there is a legitimate basis for some of your concerns, we also recognize that the situation is not as dire as your letter suggests. Moreover, the root causes of our current situation are more complicated than fear of the expected downturn of students after 2026 (the “demographic cliff”) and some are mainly short-term issues that we are working through. Below, we provide an explanation for the short-term tenure-track hiring freeze, which is already being lifted, information about the current situation, and a clearer explanation of our approach to the hiring situation.
First, the reasons for the hiring freeze were not rooted in anticipation of the upcoming demographic cliff but based on uncertainties related to enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic and changing curricular needs due to the ongoing strategic planning process. After students were asked not to return to campus during their spring break in 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19, college administrations around the country did not know how many students would enroll in the 2020-21 academic year. For that matter, Sewanee’s administration did not know if it would operate in person or even if it could operate in the fall 2020 semester. Under those circumstances, the administration froze tenure-track hiring (although it filled most positions with visiting assistant professors) because of the uncertainty of student enrollment in the short term. In addition, most vacated permanent staff positions were not filled during the first full year of the pandemic. By the 2021-22 academic year, Sewanee’s administration had greater confidence that the University could operate in person and that students would enroll in the College, though there was some uncertainty about how many would return to campus and how many new students would arrive. Vice-Chancellor Brigety made the decision to continue the tenure-track hiring freeze, however, because the University was about to launch a strategic planning initiative that would consider changes in the curriculum to renew and innovate on our current academic program. Simply put, it did not make sense to assign tenure-track lines based on a curriculum that might be significantly reshaped by the strategic planning process. It is true, however, that demographic shifts, including the demographic cliff, were important contextual factors that have informed the strategic planning process. As clarity about the forthcoming strategic plan emerged and as the staffing situation in some academic programs became more acute, the current administration began to lift the tenure-track hiring freeze. In spring 2022, for example, four departments were permitted to convert visiting assistant professor lines to tenure-track or to undertake tenure-track searches.
Second, you note that the tenure-track hiring freeze has put faculty and students under greater stress than in the past. We believe that these stresses result from increased service burden on the tenure-track faculty, larger student class sizes because of sudden changes to study away, and the continuing process of hiring additional faculty. The service burden is most clearly true for faculty in the areas of advising and committee work. Non-tenure-track faculty cannot be expected to shoulder those burdens, so the service burden did fall on tenure-track faculty in the context of an ongoing pandemic. We expect those burdens to ease with our planned return to tenure-track hiring. On the student side, the greatest challenge has been the registration process, especially in the fall semesters. The registration challenges have two main causes: late cancellation of study-abroad programming after faculty hiring was already complete in the fall 2020 and fall 2021 semesters and difficulties that some academic programs have faced hiring visiting assistant professors due to a rapidly changing labor market. Both of these problems are being felt nationally as administrations across the country have noted. The late cancellation of study-abroad programs (students deciding to forgo study-abroad plans over the summer) in fall 2020 and fall 2021 due to the pandemic meant that approximately 70-80 more students stayed on campus for courses rather than study abroad. In the 2021-22 academic year, the unexpectedly large number of students on campus created unanticipated pressure on course enrollments, which varied across academic programs. Some academic programs had stronger demand for their courses than others, which is usually the case. Overall, data indicate that the average class size, however, has changed very little since the start of the pandemic: In the fall 2021 semester, classes averaged 18.1 students, while in the fall 2019 semester, they averaged 17.2 students. That rise of one student per class is not a result of intentional policy but due to higher-than-expected enrollment on campus due to shifts in study-abroad participation. For the upcoming fall 2022 semester, registration occurred prior to several academic programs, including English, Mathematics, and Psychology among others, completing their hiring processes. We hope and expect that those hiring processes will be completed to offer a full complement of courses for our students in the coming fall, easing the registration strain.
Third, the administration’s approach to hiring is based on a student-faculty ratio rather than strictly on budgetary considerations. The authorization of 29 tenure-track lines that are in question was premised on a student body of 1,700 or more. The school never reached this on-campus enrollment target prior to the pandemic years, and at no point were all of those 29 tenure-track lines filled. The administration’s plan for a return to tenure-track hiring uses a formula based on a student-faculty ratio and a percentage of the total faculty positions dedicated to long-term faculty (tenure-track professors and “teaching professors”) to determine the number of tenure-track lines. The student-faculty ratio used in the hiring plan is lower than what we have used in the past (moving from 10.6:1 to 10.4:1) to determine faculty lines, and the percentage of total lines that are tenure-track is higher than what we have used in the past. Both of these determinants helped us increase the number of tenure-track lines for the forecasted number of students, which we anticipate to be about 1,630 in the coming years, during our conversations with the faculty this spring. In light of the student-faculty ratio, the lower number of expected students on campus has driven down the number of tenure-track lines. We would also note in passing that Sewanee’s highest ranking in the US News and World Report came at a time when the student body was approximately 1,300 students and with far fewer faculty. The administration hopes and is striving to grow its student body and faculty, but excellence is more based on having an appropriate student-faculty ratio and the close bonds that come with it than on employing a particular number of professors. The administration will continue to adjust the number of tenure-track hires based on our student enrollment patterns.
Fourth, while your letter suggests that the University should focus on hiring more faculty without consideration of the financial impact to the institution, such an approach is not sustainable. The University enrolls a student body that receives a steadily increasing amount of financial aid, and the University must pay for rising material costs of running the institution while trying to employ an appropriate number of faculty for the size of the student body. The University’s endowment has grown, but most of that endowment is restricted for particular uses such as scholarships, research funding, internships, and academic prizes among others. A very small share—roughly 11%—of the endowment is unrestricted, meaning it can be used for any number of purposes. In addition, it is considered good practice to only use approximately 5% of the return on an endowment in a given year, which allows the endowment to grow and meet future needs. Currently, the University is maximizing its use of the endowment within acceptable standards to support our goal of meeting all students’ financial aid needs. That practice both helps students in need and indirectly supports the academic program of the College. With regard to the hiring of additional staff positions in the last two years, we would make just two points. First, the administration is seeking ways to reduce administrative positions, including the elimination of two high-level positions in the coming academic year, and it will continue to look for such opportunities in the coming year. Second, the additional appointments have been made mainly in the areas of student success and diversity, equity, and inclusion, both areas of the strategic plan and consonant with our core institutional values (flourishing and community). The budgeting process and use of endowment funds are more complicated than your letter suggests, and the administration (and Trustees and Regents) bear a fiduciary responsibility to secure the well-being, including the financial health, of the institution.
In closing, we hope that this letter addresses many of the concerns that you have raised in your letter. We appreciate your concern, and we are committed to providing an excellent academic program for students. We welcome the opportunity to meet with student leaders in the fall to continue these important conversations, understand student concerns, and explain the administration’s approach.
Nancy Berner, Acting Vice Chancellor
Scott Wilson, Acting Provost
Terry Papillon, Dean of the College