Northern Michigan University, expecting to face budget cuts in the upcoming year, is attempting to trim costs and fill leadership roles in the faculty. In fact, eight departments at Northern currently have interim heads.
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Susan Koch said that the direction the university takes moving forward is somewhat dependent on NMU’s state appropriation for next year.
Today, Feb. 26, NMU President Les Wong and university presidents from around the state will meet with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm about the state’s budget-and ultimately, the university budgets-for the upcoming year.
“We are in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment, because we’re still trying to understand from the state level what our budget reduction will be, and we do not know,” she said.
That budget reduction will affect the amount of resources that the university will be able to commit to searching for replacement department heads.
“There is no doubt that the budget outlook affects searches,” Koch said. “Knowing there most certainly will be a budget reduction, (the deans) are weighing all of the consequences moving forward. I am hoping at this point that we will still be able to make a few critical hires.
“Some hires are certainly more critical than others and leadership positions are very, very important. Department heads play a critical leadership and management role and we value the work that they are doing.”
Department head searches can be conducted either internally or nationally. Koch said that Northern’s accrediting body informed the university that it would be well-served to make more hires from outside the university community. She added that national searches also allow internal candidates to apply.
“I did communicate to people that I expected executive searches, including department head searches, to be national searches,” Koch said. “I think it’s important to have a national search because it offers both internal and external candidates.”
Currently, five departments on campus are conducting national searches for department heads: Biology, Psychology, English, Geography and Mathematics. Koch said that national searches can result in a higher overall price tag for the university and added that while the cost of flying candidates to Marquette and lodging them must be considered, that isn’t the primary budgetary concern.
“The much larger concern, as you are anticipating a budget cut, is the value of the position itself, which is in the tens of thousands of dollars, as opposed to the cost of the search, which is a few thousand dollars,” she said.
If an outside candidate becomes a department head, they are brought in and paid as a full professor. If an internal candidate who is already a full professor is promoted from within, that person can be replaced in the department by an assistant professor at a much lower salary.
Interim English Department Head Ray Ventre said that this differential in pay could amount to more than $50,000 per year.
“I understand the accrediting bodies,” Ventre said. “I would point out however, that most of the faculty at this university did not get their degrees from Northern Michigan University. They did come from somewhere else.”
Ventre conceded that there are certain times when it may be best to look outside the university for a department head, however.
“You have situations where you need someone from outside when the faculty in the department are not interested or there are dissensions within the faculty that require someone from outside to mitigate and articulate,” he said. “When you’re looking for new direction or you’re looking for new vision, you definitely want to look outside.”
But Ventre said these scenarios tend to be the exception, not the rule.
“I don’t think anyone in the administration is saying that the internal candidates would not be good department heads, but I would be very concerned right now with any kind of an expenditure that does not give me a value back worth that expenditure,” he said.
The English Department’s search is currently in a “holding pattern,” according to English Professor Candy Bays, who is heading the search committee. Bays said that the group is awaiting permission from Terry Seethoff, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, before beginning the interview process.
Koch said that interim heads are appointed on a yearly basis and that if a position remains unfilled into the following year, the department must again consider whom to appoint as interim. While the same person may serve as interim for more than one year, Ventre said that an actual hiring provides a sense of stability and permanence for the department and allows department heads to confidently make long-term plans.
“What matters, really, is that you get the best people that you can to serve the interest of this university and this student body and these departments. That’s what we need to be looking at,” Ventre said. “Regardless of what accrediting bodies say, or anybody else does, that’s the bottom line.”