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As NDSU faculty departures rise, some worry more could follow

FARGO — Faculty resignations and retirements at North Dakota State University are rising, and some worry it could be an early sign of more departures to come in the face of steep budget cuts.

This year 61 faculty members — including deans and department heads as well as professors and lecturers — are resigning or retiring, according to university figures. That compares to 53 resignations and retirements last year and 36 in both 2014 and 2015.

This year's increase is partly from early retirement incentives NDSU offered to faculty and staff due to budget cuts, including a 17.9 percent reduction for the 2017-19 budget, which followed 6.55 percent cuts in the last biennium.

NDSU offered the early retirement incentives, accepted by 95 faculty and staff, and imposed a hiring freeze in response to the 6.55 percent cuts.

Stuart Haring, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and president of NDSU's Faculty Senate, said the figures of faculty resignations and retirements support his anecdotal observations that more of his colleagues have been leaving.

"I can tell you there have been a number of really good faculty members who have moved and gotten positions elsewhere," Haring said. He said it wasn't clear, however, whether they left because of concerns involving the budget cuts.

"Even if that was the reason I don't know if anybody would say that's the reason," Haring said. "The climate and the state of higher education in North Dakota, it's been perceived as not trending upward."

Beth Ingram, provost at NDSU, said turnover is inevitable at the university, but she keeps an eye on the trend and faculty concerns. "I'm always worried about faculty retention," she said.

North Dakota's higher education system isn't alone in facing budget cuts, she said, mentioning Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Wyoming as other states in the region dealing with austerity. "There are very few universities that aren't facing budget cuts," she said. "Individual faculty leave for a variety of reasons."

'Generational shifts'

Administrators appear eager to send a signal to faculty and staff that NDSU's financial situation is not dire.

In a campus email to all employees last month, President Dean Bresciani wrote to pass along what he called a "positive aspect of our financial situation," high bond ratings for the university, reflecting its sound financial standing.

"We assessed NDSU's enterprise profile as very strong, characterized by stable enrollment, solid matriculation rates, and good geographic diversity, which has helped offset local demographic pressures," S&P Global Ratings wrote.

In another favorable rating, Moody's Investor Service wrote: "The [rating] is further supported by NDSU's recognition as a top research institution within its 5 state region, with growing STEM" — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — "programming and projections for continued solid student demand due to favorable demographics in the Fargo area."

This fall, NDSU will begin preparations to hire several new faculty members in programs with increasing enrollment, including engineering, the health professions and business, Ingram said. The new hires will start in fall 2018.

"That will be promising," Ingram said, calling it a modest start to bolstering faculty hiring.

Betsy Birmingham, who chairs the English Department, said she will be leaving NDSU next year to accept a dean's position at a university in Canada. Her husband and fellow English professor, Kevin Brooks, also will leave, she said.

"This is just the right time in our careers to do that," Birmingham said. Many of the departures Birmingham is familiar with are similar, involving promotions or opportunities for advancement at another university.

"A lot of it is generational shifts, if that makes sense," she said. Birmingham, who has been at NDSU for 17 years, said she is not leaving out of disappointment.

Because of budgetary pressures, most faculty vacancies at NDSU go unfilled, which increases the workload for remaining faculty and makes resignations or retirements more conspicuous, she said.

"We certainly are feeling that in terms of not necessarily being able to replace people who are leaving," Birmingham said.

'Disturbing' trend

Kimberly Vonnahme, a professor of animal science who researches reproductive physiology in livestock, recently left NDSU to accept a position with a company.

"I know there is a budget issue, but I was given a good deal," she said. "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

But she will remain in Fargo and will continue to conduct research at the university, she said.

"I have a good working relationship with people on campus," Vonnahme added. "I will still be around."

Mark Meister, a professor of communication, said he finds the increase in faculty departures troubling. "Folks are deciding to go elsewhere, and we're not able to replace those faculty," he said.

In the face of increased workloads, faculty will do their best to maintain the quality of instruction, Meister said. "I think we're doing the best we can given the resources we have," he said.

An assessment seven or nine years ago concluded NDSU was about 175 faculty members short, he said, "and those numbers clearly haven't developed."

Despite the efforts of dedicated faculty, Meister said, increased class sizes will "negatively impact students." He added, "We're stepping up and do what we can, but the trend is disturbing."

Meister has found his 20 years at NDSU rewarding — "dearly love NDSU, dearly love the mission and the students" — but he said he might be receptive to any offers from another university.

"My personal impression — after 20 years at NDSU, I'm looking," Meister said. If the phone rings with an offer, "I listen more closely these days."

Other faculty members could be feeling the same, he said. Given the long lead in academic hiring, the impact of faculty concerns over funding cuts might not be evident until next May.

"There's always flux at NDSU," Meister said. "The trend may increase."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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