Tenure-track hiring decline impacts students in smaller, research-driven departments

The number of tenure-track faculty at GW is not what it used to be, and the way each student is impacted heavily depends on what they want to get from their college experience.

In the last two years, the hiring of tenure-track faculty has slowed. Meanwhile, the number of adjunct and part-time professor hires has increased. The slowing of tenure-track faculty hires impacts some students more than others. This stems from the different needs of students planning on entering more research-intensive fields versus those more focused on preparation for careers in fields like journalism, politics and international affairs. When making financial decisions, like deciding to hire fewer tenure-track faculty, the University must keep in mind that some students will be more negatively affected.

Some disciplines, like majors within the humanities that tend to have smaller departments, need more tenure-track and tenured faculty. A clear example of this is the English department, whose faculty is shrinking after the University failed to reauthorize the hiring of a tenure-track faculty member to fill a vacancy from last spring.

Many students come to GW because they get the chance to learn from professors who actually work in the field.

Since they have job security and the freedom to pursue the research they want, tenured faculty can focus more on their teaching and research than adjuncts and part-time faculty can. This puts them in a better position to be more available to students and cultivate relationships with them. Having fewer tenured faculty can affect the undergraduate experience many students want to have, especially if they’re looking to undertake research projects and connect with tenured faculty in their field. Fewer tenured faculty means fewer research opportunities for students applying to graduate school in fields like economics, psychology and sociology, which makes those students less competitive than other applicants for these programs.

However, the slowing of tenure-track faculty hires will not affect all students, including those in the School of Media and Public Affairs and students who are not interested in pursuing a career in research or academia. Many students come to GW because they get the chance to learn from professors who actually work in the field. In fact, this is a selling point for the University and a defining part of its reputation. Meanwhile, the connection to the working world is not as important or relevant for those studying subjects like English or philosophy. Considering the University’s emphasis on preparing students for future jobs and careers, it makes sense that there is more of a focus on hiring non-tenure track faculty, as they typically have another job and can bring their outside experience into the classroom.

Ultimately, whether someone is a tenure-track, tenured or adjunct professor does not determine how committed or effective they are as a professor. Some tenured faculty will focus on improving their teaching practices and producing quality research, while a few may get too comfortable. At the same time, some adjunct professors who work in their field will bring in their real-world experience to teach students, while others may see teaching as secondary to their other job and not be accessible enough for students. There are several factors that play a role in the decisions behind hiring tenure-track faculty, and The Hatchet’s editorial board is divided on whether tenure as an incentive makes for the most rewarding education for students. The editorial board also acknowledges that we cannot represent every student perspective, like those in STEM fields, since we all study social sciences and humanities. But it is important that the University ensures high quality in all of the professors they hire, both tenure-track and non-tenure track.

While the impact on students is complicated, the impact on professors due to the slow in hiring tenure-track faculty is more straightforward. Professors have voiced concerns that slowing tenure-track hiring can affect job security and their academic freedom. The move can dis-incentivize professors from coming to GW or staying here, especially if they have plans to attain tenure and have the opportunity to go to other colleges with larger tenure programs.

Tenured faculty members are valuable to have, and this slowed growth of tenure-track faculty hires should not be permanent.

The decision to hire fewer tenure-track faculty is largely a financial one. Provost Forrest Maltzman said “significant ongoing growth” of tenure-track faculty would be unrealistic without an increase in tuition revenue to make those hires. He also said that each of these hires is the equivalent of a $3 million to $5 million commitment from the University. Universities across the country have reduced tenure lines to cut costs, much like GW.

Some departments or programs are always bound to be hurt by expenditure cuts. However, if increasing tenure hires translates into an even higher tuition increase on students, then this decision to decrease these hires makes financial sense. GW has made it a priority in recent years to make the University more accessible through efforts like going test-optional and opening The Store, a campus food pantry, so this move is consistent with that goal. Working to make GW more affordable ensures we can continue to diversify the student body instead of regressing, which GW continues to push.

Of course, tenured faculty members are valuable to have, and this slowed growth of tenure-track faculty hires should not be permanent. If making more tenure-track hires becomes a more financially viable option, or if GW becomes less tuition-reliant, then the University should start to gradually hire more tenure-track faculty. This will make GW a more desirable place to be for prospective professors looking for a long and stable career focused on teaching, as well as ensure that students in smaller, more research-focused departments can continue to get the attention and opportunity they deserve from their professors. Unfortunately, this won’t happen any time in the near future.

This latest hit in the growth of tenure-track hires will upset some current professors and potential hires as well as students in smaller departments. For now it is a decision that makes financial sense, but in the long term, hopefully this trend will not persist.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Irene Ly and contributing opinions editor Shwetha Srinivasan, based on discussions with managing director Melissa Holzberg, managing editor Tyler Loveless, sports editor Matt Cullen, copy editor Melissa Schapiro and design editor Anna Skillings.

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