Columbian College cuts back on hiring amid budget crunch

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Faculty say the number of new hires next fall will be low compared to past years, when the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences brought in as many as 20 new faculty members.

A budget crunch in GW’s largest college has forced officials to cut the number of faculty searches across departments this year.

Just five new faculty searches in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences have launched so far this year, and professors said the number of new faculty members next fall will be low compared to past years, when the college brought in up to 20 new faculty.

Four departments – biology, psychology, anthropology and chemistry – have started searches this year, according to the University’s jobs website.

The recruitment decline comes as the Columbian College has looked for ways to cut costs after a graduate student enrollment drop has stripped millions of dollars from the school’s revenue. Last spring, Dean Ben Vinson asked department chairs to find areas where the college could cut costs, and several looked to shrink financial aid packages for graduate students or reduce the number of course sections offered this semester.

Vinson, who has led the college for a year, said in a statement that hiring plans are based on recent retirements, enrollment projections and budget forecasts.

“As such, hiring plans, and the resulting number of faculty who are hired each year, vary, but they are always determined with CCAS’ strategic vision and plan in mind,” he said in an email.

He declined to sit for an interview or to say how many new professors the college is searching for this year, or how many searches it has had in the last five years.

The Columbian College grew the number of full-time faculty from 423 to 477 between 2009 and 2013, according to data presented to the Faculty Senate last year. In each of the last two years, the college increased the size of its faculty by more than 20 professors.

The Elliott School of International Affairs is seeking a professor that will also have a joint appointment in the political science department. The psychology department reopened a search this year, and the forensic sciences and art therapy departments are still listing positions they had hoped to fill by last fall as open on GW’s jobs site.

Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, said it’s common for universities to hire fewer new employees when faced with a tight budget, but that it can be “destructive” to the institutions. Many colleges refuse to slow their faculty hiring during a budget crunch, he said.

“It’s worth it to remember that these universities are here to teach students,” Nelson said. “If you cut faculty positions, you sort of cut off your nose. If you don’t replace positions, you accelerate the loss of majors.”

Administrators denied the sociology department the chance to re-launch a search for a new chair this fall, after negotiations between Vinson and the department’s candidate of choice fell through last spring, said current chair Gregory Squires.

Squires also said the college approved few new searches this year because of budget constraints. He plans to ask Vinson to reopen the search this spring, so the sociology department can try to attract a new senior professor.

Each spring, departments submit requests to the college’s leadership to start faculty searches. Deans discuss with Provost Steven Lerman which searches are ultimately approved.

“We track them, and it’s very clear they’re divided into new categories: replacement lines, which we can choose to replace and not replace, and additional lines,” Lerman said in an interview last month.

When the University creates a new faculty position, it opens a faculty line, which determines whether that person will be eligible for tenure. If a faculty member leaves GW, the faculty line stays open until the department hires a replacement or decides to close the line.

Ivy Ken, an associate professor of sociology, said the absence of another senior professor within the school has put too many responsibilities on new faculty members, who need time to devote to improving their teaching skills and growing their research portfolios.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Some faculty said there has been little communication between Columbian College Dean Ben Vinson and departments on the college’s plans for hiring this year.

“When we’re all having to take on so many service responsibilities because we’re short on faculty, it just means more work for everybody and ultimately I think less teaching and research gets done,” she said.

Ken, who directs the department’s graduate student program, said the department applied for three new faculty positions, including one to replace a faculty member who died, but all were denied.

The sudden resignation of a key faculty member in the chemistry department may have helped it win one of the coveted searches this year, said Christopher Cahill, a professor of chemistry and international affairs. He declined to provide specifics, such as the professor’s specialty, but said there was a “significant need” for that expertise within the department.

Jake Julia, the associate provost for academic initiatives at Northwestern University, said professional development is often one of the first places that universities look to cut costs. Departments will also replace technology less frequently or slash travel budgets and entertainment costs.

Typically, departments would try to keep as many people in their ranks as possible, he said.

“You don’t get rid of the lines, but you say you won’t fill them for two or three years until you get the finances cleared up,” Julia said.

David Rain, director of GW’s environmental studies program, said Vinson discussed the budget crunch and how it could affect departments with chairs and program directors in a closed-door meeting last spring.

Hiring fewer professors could lead to a higher student-to-faculty ratio, which would mean less one-on-one interaction between students and their professors, or make it more difficult for students to get into classes, he said.

History professor Tyler Anbinder said his department had been forced to cut some adjunct faculty and that the department is only offering one section of its most popular course this fall.

Anthony Yezer, the former chair of the Faculty Senate fiscal planning and budgeting committee, said the group hadn’t heard that the budget crunch would result in fewer hires for the college last year. The drop could make it challenging for departments with growing enrollment to keep up with the demand for classes, Yezer said.

“When you’re hiring so few people, it makes it very difficult to follow student interest,” Yezer said. “No. 1, you’re not replacing people who are leaving, and two, you have great difficulty responding to changes in enrollment.”

Lerman said his primary consideration when approving new faculty searches in the last two years has been how well that position could contribute to increasing interdisciplinary research or have an effect on globalization and international issues, as the University looks to create up to 100 new faculty lines over the next decade.

“It could be with any of the pillars, so faculty interest in globalization and international issues, we’ve approved some hires there,” he said. “Even in the STEM fields, we’re looking to faculty who work across disciplines.”

Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.

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