Sewanee’s Controversial 2023-2024 Hiring Plan

Rebecca Cole


The annual faculty hiring plan that was proposed for the 2023-2024 academic year was more contentious than usual due to a shift towards a smaller faculty body. The proposal, awaiting the Provost’s approval, suggested cutting the Italian program and the education program (which is currently lacking faculty) while also decreasing the size of the total faculty body. While other departments are also losing non-tenured or visiting assistant professor positions, the Spanish and Italian department is the only department losing a whole program and more than one position. 

Faculty have pushed back against the faculty cuts. A presentation by the faculty’s Budget Priorities Committee sent last week to faculty members argues that the University needs to examine the steady growth in upper administrators and pause new hires of those highly paid positions until an audit can be conducted to determine “the right size for an administration of a University of our size.”

The Purple met with Dr. Terry L. Papillon, the dean of the college and professor of classics, to better understand the proposed hiring plan. An anticipated smaller student body was a large factor in the decision to suggest cutting the Italian program. After 2026, there is a forecasted drop in students attending college, also called the “demographic cliff,” and an expected growing diversity in students attending college. This forecasted drop is due to the decrease in babies born in or around 2008 because of the economic recession, and colleges across the country are preparing for the same smaller student body. 

“We are anticipating we might be something like 1,600 or 1,650 students,” Dean Papillon said, “and we were expecting this abrupt change in the fall of 2026, but COVID has really changed everything and it has moved it forward.” The changing demographic of the student body has become a more pertinent problem that needed to be addressed in this year’s hiring plan rather than in 2025 or 2026 he added. “I think also the public questioning of the value of college education in general has become louder so there are many factors pushing this change earlier than 2026.” 

When Dean Papillon first came to the University, the goal under Former Vice-Chancellor John McCardell was to increase the student body from 1,500 to 1,750. “We were adding programs that would attract more students,” said Papillon, “so since I’ve come here we’ve added many majors and minors to make the school more attractive.” But because of the factors listed above, the original model had to shift. 

When asked about the difference between tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, Dean Papillon said, “traditionally at a school like ours, a residential liberal arts college, we have a high percentage of tenure-line faculty, very few adjuncts, and virtually no graduate students.” Adjunct faculty are positions such as visiting assistant professors, and their purpose is to fill short-term gaps in faculty. This would mean faculty positions in which the professor is on sabbatical, working in another position temporarily, or retiring (which would require the University to fill the position with an adjunct until a permanent replacement is found). There might also be a sudden spike in the popularity of a certain major, and adjunct faculty would be hired then to fill positions until it was determined if there needed to be a permanent change or not., “The people that we’ve hired as adjuncts have been fabulous,” Dean Papillon said. “I think they have just been terrific, some of whom we have converted into tenure-lines…and some of them that I’d love to keep longer but we won’t be able to.”

Large universities have gone through what some would call “adjunctification,” in which they hire more adjunct faculty than tenure-line faculty in order to save money. “It’s a very disappointing thing to me,” said Dean Papillon. After the administration ended a hiring freeze that leaders said was necessitated by the COVID pandemic, the University is beginning to hire again. and Dean Papillon said, “we’re hiring 11 tenure-track positions this year and we’re hiring at least 7 more next year, which is a very exciting thing.” Sewanee is determined to remain mostly tenure-line faculty and by the end of this hiring plan, it is expected that Sewanee will be about 92% Full Time Equivalent (FTE) professors. 

Another thing to consider is that Sewanee determines the size of its faculty based on a ratio of students to faculty. That ratio has historically been 10.6 students per faculty member. Dean Papillon creates a hiring plan to propose to the Provost every year that works within that ratio along with other factors. Using that formula, faculty would need to be smaller if the student body shrinks and conversations have occurred within faculty and administration over whether that approach is correct or not. Dean Papillon said, “The biggest complication is that when you are growing towards 1,750 and you add programs to increase the ways that we recruit students in, and then you decide to make the faculty size smaller because you anticipate the student body size being smaller, you still have those programs you have to staff.”

The University is currently at 166 FTE faculty, and the new hiring plan suggests 157 FTE faculty. The math that Dean Papillon described would actually make the number of FTE faculty 154, but he and others at the University reached an agreement of 157 as the goal because Dean Papillon would have been very displeased with such a large decrease. 

Dean Papillon said there were three fundamental priorities he had in mind while creating this hiring plan. “My first priority is that however this works, we need to be able to retain our reputation as an elite residential liberal arts college…second priority was I wanted no long-term faculty to lose their jobs over this…the third priority is that every program we have has to be able to thrive and work at its strength.” He added that he knew that these priorities might risk losing some programs that are “beloved and successful.” Dean Papillon said they also looked at other residential liberal arts colleges and the programs that they offer in order to determine what Sewanee needs to remain “an elite liberal arts college.” 

Dean Papillon said he “very much” regretted having to recommend cutting the Italian and education programs. ”I have to make the decisions and the recommendations that will prioritize those three values,” he said. “Sometimes that leads to results that I don’t want…I very much don’t want to have to let programs go and there are some adjuncts here that I would love to keep longer, they’re doing a fabulous job, but there’s not space for them.”

The Purple also discussed the proposed hiring plan with Dr. David Colbert-Goica, chair of the department of Spanish and Italian, “I think I, myself, and any other faculty member does not want to see staff reduced,” Dr. Colbert-Goica said. “I think faculty members are questioning whether the number of faculty is appropriate for the curriculum that we want to offer or should offer.” He also recognized the difficulty of the decision, but said he was unsure of whether reducing expenditures in faculty salaries was necessary. 

“Basically,” he said, “it’s happening because there are no tenure-track faculty in the program.” Colbert-Giocoa said he fully supports Dean Papillon’s goal of avoiding any cuts in tenure-track faculty positions, “It just seems very unfair that Professor Martini deserved to get a tenure-track job, but that was never made available to her. So, it seems this program is being singled out because it is easier to cut even though it is a vibrant, successful program.” 

“I have nothing but positive things to say about the two Visiting Assistant Professors who will be let go, Giordano Mazza and Alessia Martini,” Colbert-Giocoa added, “As far as I know, Professor Martini is the professor who has been here the longest out of the people who will be let go under the hiring plan. She is quietly spectacular. She has grown the Italian program (in terms of general education students and minors), does much uncompensated service as de facto director of the Italian program, and has done cutting-edge research, with publications in top journals.”

Professor Mazza is split between the Spanish and Italian programs. Visiting assistant professors typically teach six courses while tenure-track faculty teach five because they are doing additional work such as advising students. This means that the Spanish program will also be losing the equivalent of half of a professor, or three academic classes. Professor Martini will teach in the Italian program for one more year in order to teach out the program by offering only high-level Italian courses. This will allow current students to finish their minor or general education requirements. 

A former professor who taught Spanish and Italian, Manuel Chinchilla, specialized in Central American literature and culture. The department wanted to replace his position with someone who had expertise in the same region, but that request was denied. “So now,” said Colbert-Goicoa, “we also have no specialist in Central America or Mexico, which seems like a big mistake.” As the University is hoping to attract a more diverse student body, Colbert-Goicoa is afraid of the message that lacking a specialist in the region would send, especially to Latinx students interested in attending Sewanee. “A majority of people with Latin American heritage in this country are of Mexican heritage,” he said, to not have somebody that has expertise in that area seems like a real shortcoming as well.”

“It makes it hard to say that we care about diversity if we’re not diversifying the curriculum,” Colbert-Giocoa said. “…and having course offerings that speak to a large population in the United States and a large population that we want to attract,” Colbert-Giocoa said. 

Dean Papillon said that one of the exciting things about hiring new faculty is the ability to offer new courses and curriculum at the University. 

The Italian program only offers a minor, but students at Sewanee are allowed to create their own majors if what they wish to study is not offered as a major. “Two years in a row, we’ve had students that wanted to do that [in the Italian program],” said Colbert-Goicoa, “to me that’s a total sign of the vitality of the program.”

The hiring plan has yet to be approved by the Provost as of Sunday, February 12, 2023. 

Regardless, the debate over the University’s overall philosophy on hiring will likely continue. The recent presentation by the faculty’s Budget Priorities Committee noted that the proposed cuts in faculty come as administrative positions continue to be created. Since 2020, salaried staff has increased by 25 positions while only five new full-time faculty positions have been added. Between 2020 and 2022, the University has seen a 15 percent increase in administrators, the committee’s presentation noted, which means there is now one administrator for every 22 students. The University’s proposed budget for the 2023 fiscal year seeks to fund 77 administrator positions – adding two more from the prior fiscal year. Those positions would enjoy average salaries of $121,000, the presentation noted, while faculty salaries averaged $81,000 overall and $87,000 for tenure-track faculty in fiscal 2022.

“The size of the administration, particularly those in the highest pay scale, has grown without corresponding growth of the faculty. This points to a shift in priorities away from academics,’ The Budget Priorities Committee presentation concluded. “The committee urges a careful review of the budgetary priorities of the University. We especially need to ask whether this shift in priorities to administrative growth is appropriate to Sewanee in the long run.”