English and Modern Language Departments Face Largest Faculty Cuts As Enrollment Rebounds

Larger class sizes, less frequent upper-division course offerings and changes to requirements will be the primary results of last year’s budget reductions.

Wheaton College reached its goal of admitting almost 600 new students this fall. But the numbers won’t affect the faculty cuts from last year, which proposed a reduction of 13% of the academic division by spring 2025. Most of the cuts, which began as proposals from the Academic Reprioritization Committee (ARC) of faculty representatives, are going forward as planned. 

“Every chance I get, I ask the administration, what does this mean?” said Tamara Townsend, professor of Spanish and chair of the modern and classical languages department. Her department still faces uncertainty about the fate of one position. 

“Ok, the numbers are better, does this mean that they’ll reverse any of those decisions? I’m not super optimistic.” (Townsend clarified that she doesn’t believe the administration is ready to make a decision yet, not that they are ignoring the questions.) 

The largest cuts were made in the English department, which lost two lecturer positions and one tenure-track position as part of the 10 involuntary separations first announced last November. English is currently the college’s third-largest major by student population. According to data compiled by the committee, the English department has also conferred an average of 6.6 percent of degrees per year, the largest percentage of any department second to business and economics. 

The English Department, located on the third floor of Blanchard Hall. Photo by Lilliana Taussig

Christina Bieber Lake, professor of English, said she saw the faculty layoffs in the English department as a statement on the value of the department and its personnel to the college. The largest effects, she said, would be on class sizes and the variety of course offerings for the writing concentration in particular, the most popular of three paths for English majors to specialize their studies. 

“Our major has been gutted, and that’s not even the worst of it,” she said. “The worst of it is that the administration, not just to us, but to the whole college, sent the message that I’ve suspected for 25 years: that we’re replaceable.” 

The modern and classical languages department, which consists of five language programs, also faced significant personnel cuts. Townsend said almost every language lost a position, although some were eliminations of positions already vacant for reasons unrelated to the cuts.

The initial November 2022 email from President Philip Ryken and Provost Karen Lee, which announced the academic division cuts, said that the Chinese, German and classical languages majors would be reduced to minors, certificates or concentrations. Townsend said that was surprising to the department because the usual process to alter programs requires initiative by a professor and approval by a faculty curriculum committee. 

In the end, she said, the administration stuck to the faculty handbook and allowed each language’s remaining faculty to decide if the major would remain. German was the only major transformed into a minor, starting this academic year. 

The Process

When the college’s administrators sat down to prepare new faculty contracts in February 2022, they realized there might be a budget problem. Net tuition revenue per student, which refers to the full tuition billed to a student minus financial aid awarded, had not increased in nearly a decade. Meanwhile, costs had increased around 3 percent per year. If nothing was done, the college faced a budget deficit of 10% by 2027. The college had already done one round of budget cuts in March 2021, which mostly included staff position eliminations.

Bryan McGraw, dean of social sciences and professor of political science, had helped oversee that first round of budget cuts. In spring 2022, when Lee decided to assemble a committee to make recommendations about where academic budgets could be slimmed down, she asked McGraw to lead it, along with Denise Daniels, professor of business. McGraw said that asking faculty members to join the ARC was difficult because even though they weren’t tasked with making specific personnel cuts, he knew their judgments on the committee regarding programs’ budget reductions would have effects on their colleagues. 

“I would call and tell people, ‘So, would you be willing to be on the worst committee you’ll ever be on?’” said McGraw. 

The committee, which was made up of a representative sample of faculty from across campus, met with deans, held information sessions with faculty and staff and compiled data about programs’ sizes, faculty-to-student ratios, demographics and comparisons to other colleges, among other factors. They then presented a list of preliminary recommendations to the Board of Trustees and a final set of recommendations to Lee. 

Lee then met with the deans of various academic divisions and translated the committee’s recommendations into specific position eliminations in each department.  

Department Losses

Most academic departments on campus lost at least one faculty position, whether or not there was a person in that role. Some faculty members nominated their own lines for elimination to save another in the department.

Associate professor of philosophy Mark Talbot chose to retire early to avoid the likely loss of a colleague. Adam Wood, chair and associate professor of philosophy, said Talbot’s volunteering to be the position that was eliminated was a relief, although it meant losing a valuable member of the department.

“Early on in the process when we were given to understand that we were probably going to lose somebody from the department, Mark very graciously said in front of everybody, ‘If somebody’s got to go, it should be me,’” said Wood. 

A similar story played out in the mathematics and computer science department, where a professor nearing retirement age volunteered himself to retire early to prevent another position elimination. After this academic year, the department will have eight total faculty, down from the current nine. 

One full-time faculty position in the communication department’s theater concentration, which was held by Michael Stauffer, professor of communication, until he retired in 2022, was closed. A visiting faculty member position in communication will also be closed at the end of the spring 2024 semester.

The anthropology and sociology department merged with the department of urban studies as a part of the academic reprioritization process. That department lost one faculty line, a full-time position in both urban studies and anthropology. That line was covered last year by Adam Marshall, who had been working on a three-year contract that was reduced to two years due to ARC before Marshall chose to resign after one year. 

The Bible and theology department, which once housed all courses and professors across the undergraduate and graduate programs, separated into two schools over the summer. The graduate department now resides under the graduate school’s Duane Litfin School of Ministry and Theological Studies. Keith Johnson, chair of the undergraduate department, said faculty members were given a choice to teach in the undergraduate or graduate school, and some decided to teach a few classes in both. With the elimination of one Bible faculty position, Johnson said the permanent faculty will be unable to staff all the required courses offered every semester. This semester, the department has been working on streamlining the major requirements to accommodate the available faculty without having to rely too heavily on adjuncts. 

“One of the big effects is that, in the places we were already stretched thin, we’re now really stretched thin and we don’t expect any new lines anytime soon,” said Johnson. “So we have to adapt our curriculum to match this reality.” 

The revised Bible and theology major is currently under review by the faculty curriculum committee, and if approved, will go into effect next fall. 

The Record reported in May that the biological and health sciences department lost two full-time faculty and one part-time staff member. The reductions mean that applied health science labs are now managed by biology staff, among other changes. The department of chemistry lost one of its six full-time faculty positions. 

In some departments, the positions that were eliminated were already vacant. The political science and international relations department closed a position left empty by Kathryn Alexander, professor of political science, when she resigned for unrelated reasons in summer 2022. 

Similarly, in the business and economics department, Matthew Forsstrom, associate professor of economics, said he would resign for family reasons before cuts were announced last fall. Forsstrom’s position was subsequently closed after his departure in the spring. Min-Dong Paul Lee, chair and professor of business, said that the smaller student population from a few years of low enrollment means a smaller faculty will be able to manage all the courses. He also said the department is proposing a new major, business analytics and management science, which, if approved by the curriculum committee, would be eligible for registration next fall. 

The physics and engineering department lost one full-time and one part-time faculty position, both of which had been empty since the summer of 2022 for reasons unrelated to ARC. Darren Craig, chair and professor of physics, said that while the physics faculty is smaller, the engineering faculty is expected to grow from one professor to four over the next few years as the college rolls out its new four-year general engineering major

Some departments were unavailable for comment on the effects of ARC’s proposals. 

Reactions from Campus

Professors and administrators have voiced a goal of minimizing student effects from the cuts. But the loss of professors has hit some students in their departments hard. Rylee Boldog, a senior English writing major, said she sees an implication that some fields of study are more valuable than others. 

“It makes me bristle a little bit because I start to wonder, do we not bring in as much money as the science departments?” she said. “Or do we not have as much notoriety as the econ people?” 

Noah Doolan, junior biblical archaeology and classical languages major, said he was prepared for the cuts to happen because of conversations he’d heard in an upper-division Hebrew class last fall. He said he wasn’t as worried for his personal studies, but more for the state of the department. It only bolstered his desire to continue in his major.

“It made me realize classics are as necessary as they ever have been,” Doolan said. “You can see around the country where there’s a lot of classical languages programs that are closing down, or theology programs that no longer require you to study like Hebrew or Greek, that sort of thing. So someone needs to do it.”

Last fall, the initial reaction of the English department was to call for a reversal of the cuts. Christine Colón, professor of English, became chair over the summer. She said that faculty members began an appeals process with administration almost immediately. 

“I think there was a sense that we were going to lose at least one line, but three lines was surprising,” said Colón. 

She said that now, as some English professors become eligible for sabbaticals, she is handling both the short-term and the long-term problems of staffing in the department. In the short term, professor sabbaticals mean courses must be covered by temporary or adjunct faculty. But in the long term, the department wants to retain the full-time positions lost to budget tightening. 

“We’re still fighting, because we think that it’ll be a loss,” Colón said, referring to the department’s efforts to attract more students. “We’d rather fill those lines with people that we know are amazing.” 

(Correction: A previous version of this article excluded the above clarification that Colón was referring to departmental efforts to attract students.)

Helen Huiskes

Helen Huiskes

Helen Huiskes is a senior English Writing major with a minor in International Relations. A native of Portland, Ore., she enjoys learning languages, pasta and over-analyzing TV shows.

All Posts
Share Post: