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COVID-19 disrupts faculty hiring and review

A lone cyclist in Red Square
A cyclist makes their way through a deserted red square. Western plans to reopen campus in the fall, but the number of students who will return remains uncertain. // Photo by Nate Sanford

Uncertainty over fall enrollment delays contracts and upends course evaluations

By: Nate Sanford

A possible decrease in enrollment and funding caused by COVID-19 has disrupted the faculty review and contract allocation process, and prompted Western to temporarily suspend hiring of new full-time staff. 

In a letter sent through Western Today on April 2, President Sabah Randhawa said the school has temporarily suspended all non-essential purchases, as well as the hiring of all new full-time faculty and staff. Exceptions to the suspension may be considered, but require approval from the appropriate college’s dean or vice president. 

Rich Brown, president of the United Faculty of Western Washington, said verbal offers  extended to faculty will be honored, but for faculty in the middle of the search process who had not yet received a verbal offer, hiring is temporarily paused. 

“There were a number of searches that were in the process before this all happened that would bring new faculty to campus next year. Unfortunately, right now those processes had to be put on hold until we have time to determine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brown said.

In the letter, Randhawa said Western is taking fiscally conservative steps as a precautionary measure while the university waits for clarity on what state support and tuition revenue will look like in the coming year. The COVID-19 crisis could potentially cause Western to see a decrease in state appropriations, revenue from Housing and Dining Services, private donations and student enrollment, Randhawa said. 

Western currently plans to reopen campus for fall quarter and resume operations as normal. Projections on the number of fall quarter enrollments are not yet available, according to Western’s Communications Director Paul Cocke. In the letter, Randhawa said Western will have a better picture of the number of fall enrollments by mid-October, at which point the restrictions on hiring new full-time faculty will be lifted. 

Across the country, colleges are preparing for the possibility of decreased enrollment. In a national poll conducted by the Art & Science Group, nearly one in six college-bound respondents appeared to be near the point of giving up on the idea of attending a four-year college or university next fall.

Gabe Cornett, a second-year at Arizona State, said he still plans to transfer to Western next fall, despite the pandemic. He hasn’t been able to take a tour, but in early April he visited Western and walked the deserted campus himself.

“I’ve never seen this sort of event happen, I don’t think any of us have, and I don’t know if any of the consequences that we foresee will actually unfold,” he said. 

Cornett said he’s excited to start in the fall, but worries a potential reduction in faculty could have a negative impact on academics. 

The deadline for students to confirm their enrollment is typically May 1, but Western and other colleges across the country have chosen to push the deadline back to June 1 in an attempt to give students more time to decide. 

This extended deadline affects the way teaching contracts are allocated to non-tenure track faculty. According to Brown, contracts for non-tenure track faculty are typically allocated in the spring, and based on projected student need.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement between Western and United Faculty stipulates that all teaching contracts be issued by July 15. But the extended student confirmation deadline means the university won’t get an accurate picture of student enrollments until much later than normal, making it difficult to issue the appropriate number of contracts by the deadline stipulated in the agreement. 

In his letter on April 2, Randhawa said contracts for non-tenure track faculty will be completed by July 15, “unless Fall 20 [sic] enrollments are significantly lower than projected.” 

Brown said he spoke with the administration the following day, and came to an agreement that all contracts would still be issued by the date specified in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“My point, when I talked to the university was, ‘You’ve got to figure that information out between June first and July 15 because in the [agreement] it says the contracts have to be issued by July 15,’” Brown said. 

According to Brown, a decrease in the number of fall enrollments could also mean a decrease in the number of contracts issued in June. 

The COVID-19 crisis has also impacted the way faculty reviews are conducted. Under a new agreement between Western and United Faculty, student course evaluations for spring and winter of 2020 are now optional. Online course evaluations will be made available to faculty who choose to use them.  

Student end-of-course evaluations are normally an important part of faculty reviews, and help determine things like promotion, tenure and re-hiring of non-tenure track faculty for future sections, Brown said. Under the new agreement, student evaluations from spring and winter quarter will not have any negative impact on the outcome of an instructor’s review. They will be included in portfolios for informational purposes only.  

A memorandum of understanding signed by Brown and Randhawa on March 19 said some negative student feedback might be attributed to, “the uncertainty, anxiety, and schedule disruptions caused by the virus,” and not by the conduct of a particular professor. 

“Those reviews are [supposed] to reflect the teaching that we’re all hoping to do, not the teaching that now we’re being forced to do because of COVID-19 and the remote learning,” Brown said. 

Brown said he hopes United Faculty can continue to help provide students with the highest level of quality education, while also protecting the rights of faculty. 

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