By Michael Jerryson
Youngstown State University is facing a subtle but deadly attack on its academic integrity: Top-tier professors are leaving the university for greener pastures.
It is an age-old academic practice to court strong professors and to woo them to other universities. Harvard University is notorious for inviting professors to give guest talks, but surreptitiously treating the talks as a way to vet potential candidates. During the recent recession, academics took a turn for the worse. Endowments declined and higher educational institutions had to let go of faculty, at times, entire departments.
This recent economic recession created a unique period in which colleges and universities could select from stronger applicant pools. While this golden period has ended, the benefits have not gone away. Professors provide name-recognition to their universities through their talks, publications and international service. Many colleges and universities netted excellent professors at lower salaries and higher workloads. The challenge is to hold on to them.
One recent university that has lost faculty recently is the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wisconsin’s flagship university lost credibility due to an attack on their tenure system in 2015. A sizeable amount of their faculty left for other universities, and this led to the university investing over $9 million dollars to “plug the leak.”
Bringing it Home: YSU, Budgets and Faculty
An issue that has plagued some colleges and universities is the loss of revenue. States have placed less tax money into higher education, which has led to a rise in tuition costs. The rise in tuition, coupled with changes in student demographics, deeply impacts a university’s revenue source.
Northeast Ohio’s population is shrinking. Only last year, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County was second in the nation for population loss. For public universities like YSU that draw largely from the region, this makes financial solvency all the more challenging.
It is unavoidable that YSU will have to adjust its faculty size to fit its student enrollment in the years to come. The administration has addressed this over the last several years. For example, the denial of replacements for many faculty positions in which professors have retired or left. The challenge is to reduce lines, but not lose the strongest professors in the process. So far, YSU has failed to do so.
At the close of the spring 2016 semester, the university is losing several strong faculty. Deborah Mower is leaving YSU for an endowed position at the University of Mississippi. In addition to her many publications, Mower is the president of the Society of Ethics across Curriculum (SEAC) and the recent recipient of a prestigious NEH grant. Helene Sinnreich is leaving YSU for the University of Tennessee. Along with her many publications, Sinnreich is the editor of the “Journal of Jewish Identities” and the executive director of the Ohio Council for Holocaust education. The loss of these faculty members is substantial, not only for their departments, YSU students or the campus at large, but for the community.
Faculty and Higher Education
In the world of industries, professors “produce” knowledge. They do this through teaching, research and scholarship. The more knowledge a professor accrues, the more effective he or she becomes as an instructor and scholar. A professor who is president of an academic organization and recipient of an NEH grant brings a wealth of knowledge into the classroom. Students benefit from learning from an expert in the field. Likewise, if a professor is an editor of a journal, he or she is privy to cutting-edge research and publications in her or his field. They are able to assign new publications in their classes, discussing the latest theories and data.
In conversations with YSU administrators, I have heard the argument that YSU can “replace” any professor. This may be true, but the buyers’ market is not the same as it once was. Moreover, the overall package YSU offers candidates is not what it used to be (particularly, a loss in benefits and increase in teaching loads).
If YSU wishes to preserve the quality of education it currently offers, the administration needs to “plug the leak.” It is one thing to pare down a faculty size to address the changes in student enrollment. It is another to weaken the overall academic value that YSU can provide to its students.