Counterproductive hiring freeze at U of M


In November, just after the conclusion of the Community Fund Drive, the University of Minnesota administration imposed a “hiring pause” in anticipation of reduced state support consequent on the state’s sizable budget deficit. What this hiring pause turns out to mean is that most faculty and staff positions that have become vacant will not be refilled. Most searches for new faculty, including replacements, have been cancelled. The hiring of temporary instructors is commensurately affected, and funding for teaching assistants is to be reduced.

There will thus be fewer instructors to teach courses, therefore fewer courses will be taught. Students will not be provided with the full range of the curricula they were offered when they decided to come to the U. Many will be unable to complete their degree programs in the form they signed up for, at least not in a timely fashion. Programs that are already understaffed are being crippled, and students are left with inadequate course offerings to meet their needs. Meanwhile the administration proposes to raise tuition yet further.

I invite the public to consider how the administration’s cancellation of faculty searches that it had authorized months ago comports with the U’s core mission and stated goals, the larger financial picture at the U, and above all the annual tuition hikes. Note that we are not talking about increasing the numbers of faculty through incremental hires, simply about preserving what we had up through last spring.

What does hiring new faculty entail? A lot of work, as I can attest, having chaired one of the searches that has been canceled. My department, Classical and Near Eastern Studies (CNES), was conducting a search for a faculty position in ancient religion, in order to replace a faculty member who departed the U at the end of spring (lured by a better-resourced position at the University of Chicago). It is not a given that a professor who leaves the U will be replaced; the department must submit a request to the college to replace the position, and college approval is again required at every phase of the search. Six months ago, CNES had received authorization from the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) to search for a replacement. We had almost carried the search to a successful conclusion: after the long process of reading applications and conducting preliminary interviews, we had identified three excellent candidates to invite to campus.

Then, on Dec. 9, the bulk of our work having been completed, CLA notified CNES that our search was cancelled. We could do nothing but inform our 50 applicants that their trouble was in vain. We shall be unable to offer the courses the successful candidate would have come to the U to teach. And all our time and effort to conduct the search has been wasted; that includes the time not only of faculty, but of the graduate student member of the committee (volunteering her time to the task, like us), and our department staff. The University administration has just flushed hundreds of hours of work down the toilet.

For what? To save the cost of hiring a starting assistant professor, whose salary would be in the range of $55,000 per year (plus benefits). Compare that to the salaries of top administrators and athletics coaches, helpfully published by the Minnesota Daily in its Dec. 10 edition. It’s nice that the U’s top brass froze executive compensation upon imposing the “hiring pause,” but it doesn’t hurt to have your salary frozen at several hundred thousand dollars per year.

To hear President Bruininks tell it, the administration’s objectives during the current economic crisis are to “maintain the core strength and quality of the University” and to “increase productivity … while improving service and efficiency” (e-mail message to employees, Dec. 4, 2008). How does it “increase productivity” to waste employees’ time by canceling searches that are underway? How does cutting faculty positions, so that departments cannot offer students the courses required for their programs, serve to “maintain quality”? How does it “improve service and efficiency” to withdraw curriculum from students trying to complete degrees? Meanwhile, the administration continues to trumpet the university’s “excellence.” I could have taught an entire course in the time I spent chairing the search in ancient religion, or else I could have used that time for research. Besides reducing productivity, when the University administration throws our time away, it throws away its putative commitment to excellence.

The administration’s communications about how to address the U’s financial problems always refer to the state, the state’s budget deficit, and the state’s appropriation to the U, as if the hiring pause and all its consequences depend only on the capacity of the state of Minnesota to provide the requisite support. That is nonsense. I submit that the U’s financial position would be much better now if the administration had not chosen to spend large sums on things it wanted, regardless of whether those things have anything to do with the university’s core academic mission. This past year has seen, for example, the purchase of a new financial system – essentially a software package – for the price of $28 million. The old financial system worked fine; the new one does not, and since its implementation in July it has required gargantuan amounts of staff time for training and for making it work. (Efficiency?!) No one I know who actually works with this new system thinks it was a wise purchase.

Everyone can point to their favorite examples of profligate spending, and most would point first at athletics (the costly new stadium, the high salaries of coaches, the billboards advertising football that are as unattractive as they are unnecessary) or at administration (the ever-increasing number of vice presidents; the ever-growing quantity of paper-pushing, or nowadays pixel-pushing, required to get anything done at the U), with its many “initiatives” of dubious purpose and effectiveness (notably the Strategic Propaganda Initiative, as it would rightly be called). Few would point to academics and claim we have too many faculty teaching too many courses, doing too much research, and working with too many students. But it is we who are the university, we the faculty and students (and, yes, the coaches, too), together with the staff who facilitate our work. The administration is not the university but, properly, its servant.

This administration serves the university ill by reducing faculty positions and thereby crippling academic programs. It does a disservice to students, thus to the state of Minnesota, by cutting instruction and curriculum while raising tuition. You, the citizenry, have been led to expect better, and for your share in the U’s funds you have a right to demand it.