Denying tenure because of declining enrollment: is this a trend?

Lake Superior State University logoOne midwestern university has responded to declining enrollment in a very specific way.  Lake Superior State University (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; home of the Banished Words List) is apparently denying tenure to tenure-track faculty in some cases because the campus cannot afford to grant long-term employment to them.

Evidence for this comes from tenure process documents, like one “letter sent to Inside Higher Ed by a faculty member who requested not to be named”:

“Enrollment at Lake Superior State University has declined for the last several years, leading to a reduced demand for … courses… We have been able to maintain employment for our faculty due to retirements and moves to part-time status but these alone have not been, and will not be, sufficient. Given the projected decrease of enrollment for the 2016-17 academic year, Lake Superior State University must reduce its staffing.”

The IHE article expands on that dropping student numbers aspect:

Enrollment at Lake Superior State has been declining… S&P noted in that decision that the university’s enrollment had declined by 20 percent since 2010 and was down again last year after a slight uptick in 2014.

20%.  That’s pretty strong.

LSSU is quite frank on this score, and the connection to tenure decisions:

“We haven’t been hiding any financial concerns,” said Thomas Pink, director of public relations. “We have had five years of declining enrollment and our employee base has stayed basically the same. We have an obligation to look at that.”

Michigan demographics feature declining numbers of minors, like those of much of the American midwest.

Perhaps this strategy is an alternative to the queen sacrifice.  It looks like preemption before financial needs drive the cuts of tenured faculty and departments.

LSSU’s story is a sample size of one, and only touches on a handful of faculty.  So is this a fluke, or one example of a larger trend?

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5 Responses to Denying tenure because of declining enrollment: is this a trend?

  1. Joy Pixley says:

    I’m confused by where in this process this occurred. Did they go trough all the motions of a tenure review, and then reject the person (people) based not on their record but on the university budget? That’s what your use of “tenure process documents” suggests. If so, what an incredible disservice to their junior faculty! Not to mention the wasted effort on the part of the reviewers and everyone else involved. Is that anywhere close to ethical?

    If they’ve decided in advance that they can’t afford to tenure people, don’t go through the process. That’s a substantially better thing for the junior person to say on the job market than to try to convince another university that the rejection was not based on their record.

    • From what I can tell as an outside observer, Joy, that seems to be exactly what went on.
      Perhaps the enrollment and budget crisis worsened appreciably after these faculty members were hired, so this wasn’t factored into their initial contract.

      It does seem deeply unethical.

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    Does anyone else see a veiled implication that the issue is declining enrollments specifically in the applicant’s courses or department? I admit that I’m reading between the lines, but I think that’s being implied.

    • Oh, good point, Joe. That would make sense.
      Think of the incentive. “Get more students for your classes, or else.”

      • Joe Murphy says:

        Adjuncts, of course, struggle with this regularly – if your class doesn’t make the minimum enrollment, your job doesn’t exist. On occasion, this becomes an issue in both formal and informal advising of students.

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