WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with a marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that, amid the generation of new 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 poorly paid 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 sacrificed in order to feed trendier 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 worries about universities’ value commitments in the midst of increasingly assertive efforts to identify and draw in more students. For example:
- How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing the institution’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
- Given that its employees — faculty and staff — distinguish a university as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
- How does the institutions 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 most universities use to describe their response to enrollment declines, and the more or less predictable budget contractions that accompany them, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring when a university makes proactive, concerted efforts to become more appealing to students. But, for many faculty members, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, it is understandable if we have serious concerns about investment in core academics.
Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new 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 we will choose to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people — students, faculty and staff — at the heart of our core academic mission remains to be seen.