[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 bête 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 recherché 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.]