WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with another marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that amid all of the plans for feel-good slogans, enhanced residence halls, and other student enticements, faculty are asking questions about the university’s investment in its core academic mission. For example:
- How is the ongoing shift away from full-time tenure track faculty toward part-time instructors consistent with WMU’s promise to provide a world-class education?
- Is WMU’s investment in its “research-intensive” status sufficient to help prospective students distinguish WMU from community colleges and other, more affordable, four-year institutions?
- Will core university basics, including traditional disciplines and general education, be starved in order to feed trendy majors?
- Will significant, ongoing investments be made in academic advisors, librarians, counselors, and academic student success programs to help students progress in WMU’s relatively open enrollment environment?
There are, of course, more general questions underlying these worries about the university’s value commitments in the midst of its increasingly assertive push to identify and draw in more students. For example:
- How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing WMU’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
- Given that its employees — faculty and staff — have always helped distinguish WMU as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
- How does WMU see its responsibility to respond to campus climate issues, for example, concerns about racial and gender equity, as consistent with its efforts to attract more students?
Though “austerity” is not a word WMU uses in describing its response to its enrollment decline and the more or less predictable budget contraction that accompanies it year after year, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring that the university is making proactive, concerted efforts to make WMU more appealing to students. But, for many of us, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, often even as our counterparts at competing universities grow and flourish, it is understandable if WMU faculty have serious concerns.
Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new WMU billboards and tv commercials appear? Will faculty and staff be left to foot the bill for glitzy marketing strategies that may feel good in the moment but have little long-term impact? Whether WMU chooses to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people at the heart of its core academic mission remains to be seen.