The SLAC job market and disappearing jobs

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Just in case you thought blogging was dead: I read an interesting blog post that I want to share with you, and comment on it in my blog.

This post was about disappearing faculty positions at Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs), on a blog for early career philosophers. It points out enrollment declines in SLACs, and a notably substantial drop in the number of new tenure-track positions being offered at these institutions. The comments section in that post are quite illuminating and it communicates the precarity of being a tenure-track or tenured professor in an institution that may have trouble with enrollment and keeping the lights on.

One way that small private colleges are adjusting to enrollment challenges is to cut back on hiring new faculty. That’s a lot better than going into debt or drawing down from the endowment, so that seems wise. I don’t know if this has been happening in STEM fields? In the eco/evo jobs wiki, I didn’t notice many jobs at SLACs when I was just taking a browse, but I don’t know how this relates to previous years. Though there seem to be a bunch of RPU (Regional Public University) jobs this year.

When I was at the last batch of conferences in the past several months, one thing that came up a few times when I was chatting with postdocs was about how jobs in small colleges is highly appealing, but also the job security that comes with tenure isn’t necessarily so secure. What good is tenure if your college has to close its doors and fire everybody? How do you know if, when you take a job, that the institution will be around 30 years later? Will it even survive the current demographic decline of traditional college-aged students?

I imagine that all of the SLACs that are on the top-100 national lists on the strength of a robust endowment will continue to exist. (And the reason these places are ranked high, in good part, is because of the endowment.) But folks enroll in colleges in part because they’re buying the name of the institution on their diploma, and the connection to the alumni network, and so these places have both their reputations and their endowments to rely on during leaner times. But what about all the wonderful places that don’t have 9-digit endowments and aren’t quite as prestigious? How many more of them are going to go under? Does this include the place where you’re currently working or are thinking about taking a job?

I forget where I first heard this many years ago, but someone once told me that “Real tenure is portable.” Which means that having tenure, but not being able to leverage your position to be able to land another job you might want, isn’t really tenure, because that job can disappear or go bad in an instant. You get some bad leadership, a sociopathic colleague, or a divorce or a new marriage or a climate disaster, and you might need to move. What good is tenure if it’s anchored to a single place? And the value of that tenure is less and less if you’re not even confident that the campus will be able to keep its promise to you if they run out of money. You have “real tenure” if you maintain your competitiveness on the job market, as you evolve and as the academic landscape evolves.

Anyhow, back in 2016, I posted about the financial cliff that low-endowment small colleges would be facing, in the context of wondering whether it’s wise to hitch one’s career to a cart that might pulled by a horse that might run out of food. And since that time, a bunch of small colleges have disappeared. More are going to be closing their doors in the coming years, to be sure. It’s not exactly gratifying to see that a bunch of this has happened and that it’s going to get worse.

Anyhow, if you’re interviewing at a SLAC, you might want to make sure that any long-term plans of yours are compatible with the long-term fiscal stability of the institution. And if you’re concerned that the ship might sink, I would guess it might be a good idea to disembark at the port rather than trying to catch a lifeboat as it’s going under?

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