Student leaders call on administration to meet academic staffing needs

Dear Chancellor Skirving,

When prospective students visit The Estate, they are intelligently exposed to our small class sizes, diverse course and major offerings, beautiful Estate, and unparalleled community culture. Additionally, Southern University is renowned throughout the Southeast and the greater United States for its strong academic reputation. Over the course of two academic years under the threat of an international pandemic, Sewanee students have repeatedly been told to trust the administration of this university to protect the community and maintain the unique culture and academic reputation of Sewanee. Time and time again, students have, often reluctantly, trusted administrators to help us get through this pandemic safely and keep the university community intact. The undersigned organizations write today to express their frustration at the administration’s limited mitigation of the hiring crises, and we call upon the administration to respond to the staffing needs of our academic departments without delay.

The student body is well aware that the University is a business, and as a result of our time in the “bubble”, the University, as a business, has taken a major hit. However, the main concern of the student body is not the financial situation of the institution or what is considered the ideal student-faculty ratio. What matters to students is the status of their own education. Although the administration has approved the hiring of 15 tenure-track positions over the next two years, this gradual and minimal easing of the hiring crises is not enough to allay student or faculty concerns about academics in this university. There would still be approximately 14 tenure-track positions remaining open at the College. While we are acutely aware that the University is preparing for a perceived admissions cliff in the coming years, the needs of current and prospective College students are being overlooked out of caution for the future. The administration’s current approach to hiring faculty based on a student-faculty ratio is untenable and while this method of managing faculty hiring may be out of abundance financial prudence in the near future , it jeopardizes our university, its students, its faculty, and its long-term reputation.

The faculty hiring crises have taken their toll on both faculty and students. For faculty, class sizes have increased, course loads are increasing, and the number of advisors has rapidly increased, contributing to a more intense teaching experience. Majors are becoming increasingly narrow in their scope, and some departments are seeing a rapid decline in their ability to educate students; the new creative writing program has only one tenure-track faculty, and the hugely popular psychology department has lost five faculty members that the department has been unable to replace. The faculty’s hiring freeze resolution rightly asserts that the hiring freeze “has emptied course offerings and led to an insufficient number of tenured faculty to engage carefully and consistently with students”. Concerns expressed and felt by faculty are reflected in the student body: faculty shortages are constricting majors and increasingly limiting course offerings while class sizes appear to be increasing; the number of advisers available has decreased; in particular, students expressed concern about efforts to conduct research with faculty. Ultimately, these troubling trends have significantly reduced students’ ability to meaningfully engage with faculty.

Sewanee students and faculty in 2022 are overlooked due to concerns for 2026. As the perceived admissions cliff approaches and universities nationwide fret about how best to lead their institutions through potential stagnation, we believe that the best advertisement for Sewanee is undoubtedly its students and teachers. The best way to protect the future of Sewanee is to continue to provide a phenomenal education and produce smart, level-headed, inspired, and experienced adults who are equipped to successfully walk through the doors and put that education and training into action. The ongoing faculty hiring crises greatly jeopardize the University’s ability to continue to provide a high standard of education to students of all majors and will undoubtedly harm this University in the long term.

We are aware of the concessions made by the administration to authorize a certain amount of research by tenured professors over the next two school years, but this is entirely insufficient. Proceeding to hire 15 new tenure-track educators over the next two years, that leaves 14 positions unfilled – and likely more than that, with retirements certainly coming over the next two years. Painfully and confusingly, the University has approved the hiring of several Deans and Associate Deans over the past two years, certainly in positions useful to the operation of this University, but at the expense of the actual education offered to the students of the College. As Dr. Bardi of the psychology department noted in an article for The Sewanee Purple: “We are an institution with enormous resources and a strong endowment”, and if we can hire administrators, we can certainly hire the faculty our departments need to function properly. We must meet the needs of our teachers and our students. Student success begins in the classroom, and departments should not have to negotiate their basic educational needs.

We, the undersigned, understand that issues of fair and decent salaries, housing stability, and research opportunities for career advancement are all interconnected when discussing faculty retention and hiring at Sewanee, and these issues need to be addressed. However, today we ask the administration to seriously consider the implications these continued restrictions have on the hiring crises the College is currently facing, and we ask that the administration act quickly to address the needs in staff of our university departments. Ignoring the pain this faculty shortage is causing to faculty and students not only alienates and endangers the educational experience of current students, but jeopardizes our institution’s academic reputation and stability in the years to come.

Respectfully,

Alex Robinson C’23

President, Order of the Robe

Izzie Berthelot C’23

EQB President, Order of the Robe

Anna McCasland C’23

President, Student Government Association

Sarah Jane Kemmer C’23

President, Board of Honor

Jane Austin Murdock C’23

Chairman, Intersorority Council

Cleo Smith C’23

President, Student Sport Advisory Committee

Brown Myers C’23

President, Interfraternity Council

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