This is a draft of an open letter I want to present to my colleagues. I post it here to share with others, too, and to think through what I want to say. My university’s finances are tuition driven, tuition-dependent even. I don’t think it’s sharing sensitive information to say so–the administration has not made a secret about the size of the endowment, and reminds us frequently of the need to be mindful about resources. The faculty has been told repeatedly by members of the administration that that the endowment is growing, but our finances are still very much constrained, contingent on the number of students who enroll every year. And so…
I think it’s very important that we all understand what we’re talking about when we talk about enrollments. I hate to be bossy, but I feel like I know more than many people. I have been forced to think about enrollment declines for the past two years, because I am an untenured faculty member whose tenure case hinges on enrollments. Yes, the last two years have been all about them; rather than finishing my book, and amidst the drafting and revising of more than 6 peer-reviewed articles on my specialized research, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about what it means to run a university based on enrollments from year to year. I’ve had to do this not because I have aspirations to be an administrator, but because I was nearly terminated from my job this past August because of low enrollments in the English department. And, because the university insists that such things are the equivalent to “long range needs,” I’ve had two years to anticipate my termination and to reflect on why I am possibly out of a job for something that is, quite frankly, not my fault. It is true, then, that I haven’t been at the university all that long, comparatively speaking. And at 38 years old, I’m a relatively young member of our community. There are many things about the school’s history I don’t know. But I do know something about enrollments. And what I know about enrollments also means I may not be part of its future. So please forgive me for writing in the imperative mode.
So enrollments. At the last meeting I went to, the administration was keen to point out that despite falling enrollments, faculty-student ratios remained the same, 1 faculty member for every 15 students. Though the university had lost a large number of faculty—50 retirements or something like that—the decline in enrollments meant that there was still parity with the number of professors for the number of students. The message seemed to be that the faculty decline is totally fine because the number of students has declined as well. This meeting, along with a letter (see the pic below)
and a blog post (see the pic or the link),
conveyed the argument that some departments, in fact, can even afford to lose faculty, or rather, should do so in order to “stabilize” not be a burden on everybody else.
But the idea that there’s a correct or “stable” number of faculty for the number of students is problematic, not least because that ratio calculation of 15-1 needs adjuncts to make it true. As I wrote before, this is a deceptive use of statistics, a hateful kind of cherry-picking that conveniently disregards differences between adjuncts and full-time faculty when it makes them look better—they did not use adjunct salaries in their calculus showing that faculty salaries had increased a great deal more than administrators. (Seriously, either you count adjuncts as faculty all the time, or you don’t—you can’t use them when it makes you look better in statistics and pretend they don’t count in other metrics if it makes you look worse.)
Second of all—and the point I will eventually want to make to my colleagues—is that running a school from year to year based on enrollments presents a severe threat institution’s moral integrity and its academic mission. And it is the very opposite of valuing faculty contributions to the intellectual economy supposedly fostered by the university.
I’m writing to my colleagues to say the following: We shouldn’t allow administrators to make arguments about the value of our work in the classroom or scholarship by taking recourse to enrollment numbers. Moreover, if they cite enrollment declines, we should not point fingers at one another or participate in whisper campaigns about colleagues’ misdeeds or mis-management, or malign one another’s fields. Instead, we must fight back against the very rationale that defines everything based on enrollments and insist that the university find other ways to run and manage its budget.
To be sure, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of “we’re all in this together” rhetoric at faculty meetings. But there’s also often a clear elephant in the room. At one of the most recent meetings when enrollments came up, some members of the faculty stood up and noted that despite the cited enrollment declines, they were teaching more students than ever; they were teaching overloads and classrooms were packed full.
There was a sense, I felt, from those faculty members that they were working way too hard to manage growing student populations—and so the implicit question behind those statements professing that enrollments were growing is this: what’s up with those departments who are hemorrhaging students?
None of the faculty have phrased any accusations in explicit terms—yet—but the implication is that other departments are either languishing or derelict, or both. In response to these comments, possibly made by faculty in Natural Sciences, who are all apparently teaching record numbers of students, the Provost explained that the problem had something to do with departments that were heavily tenured. The university was obliged to give tenured faculty their full load. Because that faculty expertise isn’t transferrable, they couldn’t very well offset student demand in one department by having a faculty member from another department teach a course outside of his expertise.
This narrative may be true in some ways. But it is a damaging narrative, in no small part because it suggests that tenure is a major problem rather than a necessary element or moral value. Any argument that supports the claim that tenure is a problem should be pushed against on the grounds of academic freedom. More importantly, however, the narrative presented by the provost is also damaging because it fosters a persuasive but ultimately misleading (if not totally FALSE) perception that can only breed competition and disunity among faculty: there’s a dinosaur department, full of dinosaur professors who stubbornly won’t retire, but are out there coasting with courses that barely have students in them. “Ah yes, eventually that department’s absent utility will be rectified by extinction because students really see no use in said department’s courses, but that can’t happen until a few dodos retire.”
I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of wishing some people would retire. And like many people, I have fallen into the trap of imagining that some colleagues aren’t doing a very good job with our students for one reason or another. But these are traps we need to avoid. Indeed, this image of the dodo or dinosaur with a few reluctant and unlucky pupils is mostly, if not altogether, the wrong way to think of colleagues without a full room. At least, I would posit, there are many ways to assess such a classroom environment without also assuming that some professors (or worse, whole departments) are not pulling their weight. A course that is not meeting the enrollment cap does not mean that a specific class or professors is deeply unloved and quantifiably so—a cap, after all, is a cap. That is, it’s the number at which we think the environment is on the brink of being unsatisfactory.
Let us also remember that our website lists a 15-1 student to faculty ratio as a good thing—a statistic that tells parents their child will get individual attention in his or her classes. We should, therefore, resist seeing small classes that are under the caps as enrollment failures, for the ratio would certainly go up if it were not for these small classes.
I say resist because, in most instances in which a student finds him or herself to be one of only 15 students competing for instructor’s attention and care, the administration has likely concluded that class insufficiently enrolled. If a course designated as LT (offered for Distribution credit) caps at 35 (and next year 37) only enrolls 29, that class is assessed as having 6 empty seats. Perhaps colleagues won’t believe me that this kind of thinking is what administrators are talking about when they invoke enrollment declines; they will contend that the administration is simply measuring what we used to enroll against what our enrollments look like now, and say that scrutinizing the change is totally warranted and fair. Perhaps. But let me just emphasize here that the administration is, in fact, not just measuring declines, but making value claims based on counting empty seats in distribution courses. If you think this kind of counting is fair, may the odds be ever in your favor.
Now, if we’re just looking at LT courses and the lack of students in them, let me just say that I have recently taught “underenrolled” distribution classes of this sort. At the beginning of this Spring semester my 2 Shakespeare sections had enrolled fully at 35 and 35, but by the end they were down to 28 and 29. LT courses, as colleagues will know, require 3500 words of formal writing from each student—a figure that means collecting roughly 14 pages of writing from each student. Anybody who’s read that many pages from 35 students—70 if you have two sections like I do––knows that it’s a huge amount of work and time to assess that work and offer quality feedback to ensure students improve their writing and refine their thinking. And so (it maybe will not surprise anybody) I actively try to reduce the number of students I have at a time. I personally find 28 students to be a good number for class discussion and certainly more manageable in terms of collecting—and taking seriously/reading carefully—their writing than 35. I understand that the number 35 has been voted on and approved by the faculty, so I’m willing to take that many students if they choose to stay. 28 students who really like my course are better than 35, where only 28 really like my course and the others negatively impact the environment or mean I can devote less time to each student. I am okay with students dropping.
It may be that others in my department are currently presiding over nearly empty classes, but given what I know of my own sections, I suspect that isn’t true in many cases. We may indeed have a few classes with fewer than ten students—but again, if that’s the case, these classes are the precisely the ones the university website implies are the norm, if not the ideal.
The thing is, university administrators would like to have things both ways: they want to advertise a small class size, while also (perhaps quietly) eliminating faculty lines because of the class size. Given this, why might we align with the administration and be skeptical about the small class environment rather than see it as fortunate or ideal? The answer is two-fold, I think. First, I think many faculty at my institution don’t actually know people are being denied tenure because of enrollment declines. I hope this post can bring awareness to faculty who don’t know it’s happening. Second, I fear that some faculty who are aware might have bought into the narrative, or that they have been encouraged by the administration’s narrative (and basic human nature) to feel that professors with more students have to work harder than those professors with smaller classes, and that the departments with faculty who don’t work hard are benefiting from something that’s unfair. I don’t mean to be accusatory, really, but I do know how easy it can be to start resenting people against your own better judgement in academic settings.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some professors in some Humanities departments have fewer students total than some of our colleagues in STEM fields or Psychology have in a single class. Class sizes and norms vary. And there are, no doubt, disparities even within single departments. I have to admit I wish I had even fewer students than I do per semester—I can’t help but think I’d be less tired and would have more energy to work with those I have. 28 is still a lot of papers to grade when that means roughly 400 pages of student work to read for one class—and again, that’s just one out of my load of three. The mere idea that there are people in my own department doing less makes me feel disgruntled, in spite of myself, so I can see why the enrollment decline talk makes faculty in departments with growing enrollments so perplexed and on edge.
I am indeed sensitive to the fact that colleagues in other departments are currently bearing a heavy load. I certainly support hiring in fields where there are students lining up and on waiting lists. But I would also urge all colleagues to see departments with enrollment declines are not necessarily departments whose offerings fail to attract students. In fact, these same departments may also have waiting lists for students—they can’t always offer classes that fill well because they don’t have enough classes for full-time faculty. Additionally, I I think we need to talk with one another very frankly about the apparent labor disparity here. Certainly a lot depends on the kinds of work students are doing and the kinds of evaluation or preparation that professors regularly have to do to be in line with their disciplines. Along these lines, I would also argue that we all need to support small classes in both abstract and concrete—not just because supporting small classes means supporting courses that give students individual attention, but also because running small classes helps maintain a full curriculum. Indeed, we need to stop seeing enrollments as a budget issue, even though they are inextricably connected to personnel matters, and instead remember that they are a curricular issue—we should be able to offer courses that aren’t “popular” because getting an education isn’t just about learning things that sound appealing. When enrollments dictate everything, we are not free to offer courses in subjects that are unfamiliar to students but may in fact be up-and-coming or even essential to many experts in our disciplines.
The other reason to be wary of arguments made based on enrollments is the way they disproportionately affect junior faculty—and because of hiring trends in the last 7 years–– the diversity of the faculty in Education and Humanities departments. (Until STEM fields hire/retain a tenure track position with an African/African American, HCLAS and Education are giving the entire university a statistic that looks pathetic as it is but is nonetheless significantly better than it will be when one HCLAS professor retires and once two faculty in Ed and HCLAS are denied tenure). Whether or not the administration is right in blaming the problem with the budget on having to give three classes every semester to tenured professors in low-enrolling departments, their solution takes aim at Junior faculty in those departments. As many as 12 cases in departments within the School of Education, as well as HCLAS departments such as Philosophy, English, and Romance Languages, have been in dispute. In most of these cases, candidates were supported for tenure at every level until their cases reached the Provost; then their cases were sent to the UAB, which has by and large recommended tenure. Since these cases are private, it’s unclear to me where many of them stand at present. But my own case will resume in February, when I am allowed to stand for tenure a second time; my case will be decided on the Fourth Criterion alone, which means if our enrollments have not improved or improved significantly (there’s no clear metrical standard for what will be acceptable), I will be denied tenure. Because of enrollments. That alone will decide my future as a member of your community. And as much as I hate to admit it, my career is contingent on how many students take courses in my department.
Now, perhaps economically, in the short term, the administration will benefit from denying tenure to somebody who has met all the requirements for teaching, scholarship, and service. Because, the argument seems to go, it can then reallocate faculty lines to departments that have more obvious need for those lines (never mind the fact that there are major differences in salary grades for new faculty in STEM fields). Even if this “benefit” works this way—and if it does, the university is run much less well than I once thought––there are other significant negative consequences. The denial of tenure removes somebody whose scholarship and teaching has brought novelty and energy for seven years, thereby making his or her home department less diverse, less young (and even more senior), and potentially even less likely to attract new students. The department may in fact suffer greater declines over all in the future.
It is easy to say “well that’s too bad for that department, let them die out, especially since we have done better than them at attracting students and deserve more resources”; and it’s easy to point to moments in the past where people in a department did or said unjust things. It can be hard to empathize with others who don’t do the kind of work we do—and it can be hard to admit that others may work as hard as we do and deserve to keep their jobs, especially if we don’t have any real sense of what it takes to teach and produce scholarship in that field. What I’m calling for, then, is hard; I’m asking people to put away their hunches and gut feelings about colleagues in other fields, disciplines, and departments, and to imagine, for just a minute, the plights of people without leveling blame.
When the administration talks to us about enrollments, know that they are taking about firing us. Once we all know that, perhaps we can stop believing even for a minute that a department is to blame, and then rightly outright reject the premise that enrollments should play a role in decisions involving existing personnel. Perhaps we can all agree that new lines are only for departments who demonstrate enrollment gains–I think many departments would, on balance, acquiesce to not hiring as long as the administration honors commitments it has made to those hired previously. I know I have a direct stake in this, but I believe firmly that people who have been hired to do a job who have done this job well should not be in jeopardy, no more than people who are tenured are to be blamed for not retiring to make more room. If the university has sound financial reasons for worrying about enrollments, it should be forced to examine the things that have cost the university the most money—and those things are not, I submit, the twelve junior faculty who have received termination letters based on enrollments, nor are they are senior faculty who continue to work for their pay.
When the administration talks to us about enrollments, then, here is my plea: Promise to help with admissions and retention. Promise to work with administrators to address these declines intelligently and creatively, as only faculty can. But do not assent to, or worse, perpetuate, the narratives of the lazy faculty member, the classroom of empty seats, or the unpopular department. Those narratives lack integrity, even if, in a few cases, they seem to be backed with evidence. Remember that for every case, there are vast others that reveal the “oversupply” story to be the disingenuous lie that it is. And remember, more than anything, just who gets punished when they act on it.