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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Even after crisis, departments feeling the strain

Published: September 23, 2011
Section: News

Three years ago former Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz warned of severe budget shortfalls for at least half a decade. With two years left to Reinharz’s projection, a number of academic departments are beginning to shake free of their mandated hiring freezes; but an even greater number are not and are potentially facing permanent restructuring.

The 2008 crash hit much of Brandeis’ endowment and donor base, and forced many of the university’s departments to contract. Some were consolidated into a single entity, like the Italian and Classical studies, which joined the Romance Studies department, while others shrank significantly in faculty. Most departments, in addition to other reductive actions, froze any search for new faculty. At the time, these precautions were assumed to be temporary, until the financial state of the university was more stable.

Last year the university released a proposal in which faculty expected to retire by 2020 would not be replaced and many liberal arts programs would be cut. In order to orchestrate this, departments were made into “programs” that allowed for greater cross-curriculum resource sharing. As of yet it is a change in name only, but according to American Studies chair Joyce Antler, the future of such programs are precarious. They are allowed to grow “through some new courses and a greater reliance on cross-listings,” but cannot hire new faculty. “A policy of attrition will not serve us well,” she warned.

The repercussions are already being felt. Student-teacher ratios are rising, lecturers are replacing professors in the classrooms and the class sizes, especially of introductory courses, are swelling. But faculty hiring did not suffer alone. Last year, there was a significant drop in the number of employees at Brandeis on the whole. Many un-tenured professors were not rehired and the maintenance services were also narrowed, as was office staff by 6 percent. The hiring freeze and program reduction, however, could be a welcome alternative to what other universities felt compelled to do—eliminate need-blind admissions and merit scholarships. Brandeis has managed to leave financial aid largely untouched, unlike many other private colleges in the area.

Three years have passed since the financial crash, but few of the departments have had their freezes lifted and it is unlikely that they will in the future. The few that are looking to hire once more aim only to fill a fraction of the positions vacated by retirees, not to expand. With so many departments understaffed even prior to 2008, the “freeze intensified a situation that was already very bad,” said Professor Faith Smith (AAFS), “and has prevented us from mounting the textured, fully interdisciplinary major that we have dreamed of offering.” Finally replacing former faculty isn’t a step forward but a return to the starting gate.

There are only a few full-time positions available in the open departments and most of them will go unfilled but, as Professor Smith added, “We are happy that the administration responded to our dire situation by allowing us to conduct a search,” which is more than was possible a few short years ago, or for most departments still.Faculty is reticent to share any plans, in case they do not come to fruition, but the atmosphere, despite the “2020” plan, is hopeful. The endowment, which had plummeted so badly, showed a healthy gain last year that surpassed many peer institutions’ and indicated that with time, finances will stabilize and provide an opportunity for Brandeis to expand programs into a more integrated and complete curriculum.

The rate at which faculty are retiring has also slowed in the past two years, Chief Financial Officer Fran Drolette said.

“I do know some people that work with me that are retirement age that are not going anywhere right now because … I think nationally, the work force is getting older, which is causing issues for those entering the workforce right now,” Senior Vice President for Administration Mark Collins said.