Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cheng on WSIU: Enrollment silver linings, and the end of faculty lines

[Update: Wednesday's DE covers an important discussion on "position control" (the flip side of "faculty lines") at the Faculty Senate--exactly as I was drafting this while being too coughingly contagious to appear at said meeting. I can also now recommend the comment stream to this piece as being remarkably substantial and moderate (sic!). In the same line, I shall note that Ken Anderson, the bĂȘte noire of a past comment stream, made an opportune objection about the administration presenting the Faculty Senate with a fait accompli after previously discussing multiple models for position allocation. Ok, enough French.]

WSIU today broadcast an interview with Chancellor Cheng that had been conducted last week, with the Chancellor out of town this week.  (Curiously, Jennifer Fuller neither noted exactly when the interview took place, nor where the Chancellor was off to. The interview itself was clearly conducted over the phone.) The main topic was enrollment, but there was also an interesting bit on the recherchĂ© but important issue of position control, and an interesting little segment on why students leave SIUC without degrees.

1. Enrollment.  The Chancellor again talked up the increase in first time undergraduates on campus. She noted that this is particularly important in a couple of different ways. First of all, as most of these new students are freshmen, this means that a larger freshman class will, assuming retention is stable, result in larger upper classes as years go on. I suppose this means that even if our freshman class next year is no larger than this year's class, our overall UG enrollment will still go up, as we'll have more sophomores. She also noted that as freshman pay higher tuition this year, the increase in freshmen may mean that overall tuition revenue remains what it would have been at static enrollment (which is what the budget was based on). She said that she didn't expect to have to make further cuts to college budgets after the 2.2% cut made this summer. All told, then, I suppose it is more important to have more freshmen than more seniors. It is also easier to get more freshmen via marketing.

Cheng granted that the decline in graduate student enrollment was troubling, and that she as yet had no answers to why it took place. The increased emphasis on undergraduate enrollment and the teaching mission of the university over the past couple of years must be one factor here. Contrast the emphasis on graduate students and enrollment under Wendler (though I do not have graduate enrollment figures handy for those years).

2. Why students leave. Cheng noted that about 1/3 of the students who leave SIUC without a degree do so in poor academic standing. It is this group that retention efforts are focused on. Here improvements in how SIUC deals with entering students with poor English or Math skills could make a large difference. Other students leave for other reasons; Cheng broke them into two groups, though without figures (probably because such figures are difficult to collect): some students leave primarily for financial or family reasons, while others, with excellent grades, leave to pursue their studies elsewhere. From a faculty perspective, it is obviously this last group that is particularly worrisome (though of course we are all pained, on an almost daily basis, by how familial and financial constraints limit the time our students can give to their studies). Cheng noted that efforts to increase the size of the Honors program are meant to help retain such students.

2. Position control. When asked about the report that all remaining open salary money had recently been "swept up" by the central administration, Cheng replied that had largely happened during the 2.2% cuts this summer. As many readers have no doubt been hearing from their own chairs and deans, the central administration has seized an unprecedented level of control over faculty hires. This began, under Goldman, during the hiring freeze, but will continue even as the freeze thaws. The central administration position now is that departments can no longer work on the expectation that they have a certain number of lines to work with, and that when a faculty member leaves, for whatever reason, he or she will normally be replaced. As a practical matter, of course, many lines across campus have long gone unfilled, and departments with higher and rising student enrollments have naturally been prioritized when they have open lines, and have even been granted new ones on occasion. But we are seeing a pretty fundamental change in the way faculty positions are distributed.

There is of course some good reason to abandon the old way of thinking, and SIUC must obviously take student demand into account when choosing where to make faculty hires. But there are big losses here, too, it seems to me.

a. The most obvious is that departments will find it difficult or impossible to make rational long-term plans. If I know that my department is supposed to have X lines, I can plan for a certain number of specialities. If, on the other hand, I know only that if someone leaves I will have to fight tooth and nail to get a replacement, I can't plan on anything.

b. A more important factor, it seems to me, is what I will dare to call a Burkean argument in favor of the tendency to conserve faculty lines. The traditional distribution of faculty across departments represents a longstanding, if evolving, judgement about what this university should offer its students. A varied set of factors have gone into determining this mix, including student demand, but also including judgements by faculty, deans, and central administrators about what sorts of programs our university should offer its students, and what sorts of research we should undertake. A certain level of inertia was built into the system (or rather evolved within it); the tendency to preserve faculty lines meant that prior decisions about allocation of positions were given a certain amount of deference. The current administration wants to replace this messy, slow, evolutionary and conservative process with a vastly more efficient process that reduces all decisions to but one criterion: enrollment.  (Cf. "performance based funding").

There are real risks here. Consider those students with excellent grades who go elsewhere. One reason for some is surely that they come to be interested in something they think (and perhaps their faculty advisors also think) a good research university should offer, but that SIUC doesn't. We can't offer everything, and we must take student demand into account. But we are, after all, supposed to be educating students, not just serving them as consumers. As educators we have a responsibility not only to give students what they think they want but to inspire them to realize that their wants, and needs, are wider than they could ever have imagined before coming to this university. If we pour all of our resources into the relative handful of most popular programs, we will lose an important part of our ability to have this transformative effect on our students.

[My traditional disclosure: I'm a classicist, so have a self-interest in promoting certain conservative values. After all, take this argument to its extreme--and give tremendous difference to past models of education--and at least half the faculty at SIUC would be classicists. Now that would make for an interesting university.]


  1. It's unclear from the interview whether a third of the students who leave are students who have poor academic standing or if a third of all students (the majority of those who leave) leave because of poor academic standing.

    Does anyone out there know the numbers?

  2. I can see the need for centralized decision making on positions. But this should include faculty input. Yes, student demand is a factor. But it is not the only factor. Research priorities and the intellectual integrity of the university matter.

    For example, there is little student demand for Russian literature. But Russian literature has something unique and powerful to say about the human condition. Now if a committee put together by the Chancellor and the Faculty Senate look at at these factors and decide that Rus Lit has to go fine. But it should not just be a decision made by bean counters.

  3. I agree with Anon 10:57

    That is a very reasonable position. There is more to these decisions than simply credit hours etc. It does not make sense to simply refill a vacated position just because it was filled in the past. Resources are finite and need to be distributed with deliberate and thoughtful purpose, and faculty can help to ensure that that is achieved. Chairs and Deans can/should also have a role since redistribution of positions also affects departmental and college-level considerations.

  4. I would like to know if there are other research universities where decisions about faculty lines have been centralized to the extent that we are (apparently) going to be seeing here as SIUC. Are there any models for this? This seems like VERY uncharted territory to me, and also like yet another step that undermines faculty input and shared governance.

  5. To 10:57. Russian, by the way, was officially terminated here about ten years ago. The FL department (my department) actually approved the change, under duress, but in a fit if pique we left a bundle of Russian courses in the catalog, together with a minor--just in case we could ever offer such courses again (after finishing off the handful of current majors). The dean/administration made it clear that there was no prospect whatsoever of our replacing our departing professor in Russian, so we felt we had little choice. I don't think we got anything tangible in return for going along with the decision, though we probably hoped for some brownie points. But perhaps, given the whole campus situation (and the decline of Russian studies nationally with the end of the Cold War), the decision was rational enough from a larger perspective. Few or none of our peers offer a Russian major.

    I don't mean to make this a paradigm of a good decision so much as to show that difficult decisions to cut intellectually valuable programs were possible even under the old rules, before "performance based funding" and centralized position control.

  6. Natasha,

    Actually there are many. The degree of position control varies considerably between universities, from totally centralized to more distributed. It remains to be seen where SIU will stand relative to others since the system that will be implemented here is not yet fully defined. It will be more centralized than before, but the role of the Deans (possibly the roll of the Deans), the departments and faculty (possibly via the senate ???) remains to be fully articulated.

    There is no doubt that SIU is going to shrink. We have less resources to spread around and less students relative to years past. Right now that is occurring via attrition, especially via the rush to retirement. That is not likely to occur evenly across departments or even colleges. Furthermore some colleges and departments are shrinking wrt student demands (both here at SIU and more broadly across all universities). So it makes sense (to me at least) to have an overarching strategy to make sure that as we replace faculty that leave voluntarily, we do so on the basis of trying to position the university to be able to function optimally in the future, rather than on the basis of "this distribution of faculty worked before, therefore it should be good enough for the future". That strategy has not worked out so well in other places.

    The question that remains to be answered here is how much input will there be from each level of constituency (Deans, Chairs/departments/directors and faculty) and what form will that input take? As far as I can tell, that is still being worked out, and that's OK because (a) we still have a hiring freeze which means that effectively we have been working under a significant degree of centralized hiring for quite a while, and (b)that we have time to work out details. If you are concerned, I suggest that you talk with a Faculty Senator ... :-)

  7. One of the things I brought up at the Senate meeting yesterday was that centralizing in itself is not all bad--it makes good sense to think about the institution as a whole rather than just our own units. However, how the decisions are made is critical: shared governance, democracy and transparency should be our goals. Wouldn't it be something if the debates over positions would be public and open?

  8. Thanks very much to Anonymous 2:50 for the very thoughtful, helpful response. That is clarifying. Who are you, anyway? :-))

    I will definitely be in touch with my own contact on the FS regarding these issues. :-)))

  9. I'd agree with Jyotsna's good point that centralization is not all bad, that transparency is essential, and that larger institutional goals have to be kept in mind. But I think that the higher up the food chain one goes, the harder it is for academic arguments to be heard--not simply because higher administrators become less "academic" (as not all do), but because it is even harder to judge whether a field in CoLA is more essential than one in CASA, say, than to judge between two fields within COLA or within CASA.

    As a member of the (not very effective) CoLA budget committee for a number of years, I found it hard enough to weigh in on whether geography or English, say, had a better case for a hire; it would have been still harder were English vying with electrical engineering, accounting, and automotive technology. The harder it is to weight the academic merits (is this hire necessary for our mission?), the more dominant become the bean counting metrics (enrollment). So there may well be some good reason to leave colleges more position control, as has traditionally been the case.

    If enrollment is the only metric used to allocate faculty resources, then we are following the same metric that would be employed by a for-profit university. That is, we only staff those programs that can be offered efficiently enough to make a profit. The thing that is supposed to distinguish us from a for-profit is our educational and research mission. But that mission appears to be given no role in allocating resources according to the new scheme.

    Of course we cannot squander state money, and of course, like any other non-profit, we must make ends meet. I'm not advocating that we ignore enrollment in deciding whom to hire: it must be a major factor in making such decisions. But if we ignore everything else then I think we're essentially following the for-profit model. We'll try to become the University of Phoenix at Carbondale; and we will have a hard time beating the University of Phoenix at its own game, lowball higher ed.

  10. Excellent points, Dave. This is the model that Cheng intends to impose on SIU - a for-profit online college with adjuncts teaching after tenured faculty have been fired similar to the case of the College of Santa Rosa. Certainly, Cheng's refusal to commit herself in writing that faculty who disagree with online teaching will not face reprisals bodes ominously for the future.

  11. Oops. College of Santa Fe rather than Santa Rosa. I know a very good tenured scholar who was terminated there despite her international reputation.

  12. Natasha,

    I prefer not to post my name, but you can see my picture at http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2389/2270254307_9b1665bfa5.jpg


  13. To Anonymous 5:59:

    Ah. As I suspected! ;-)))


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