Aging WCU faculty points to job satisfaction, university says

fr WCUWhen Bruce Henderson first came to Western Carolina University back in 1978, he was just happy to have a job. The market was tight when he finished his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, so he took what he was offered. Within a couple years, he figured, he’d be able to move somewhere more notable than the little college in Cullowhee.

“I went to the kind of graduate schools where the expectation was you would go and work at a major research university, and that’s certainly what my advisors in graduate school thought would come of me,” the psychology professor said. “But that’s not what happened.”

Thirty-seven years later, Henderson’s still at WCU. He fell in love with the university’s focus on students, with the flexibility it offered his research — instead of spending years “dig[ging] a hole deeper and deeper into the same issues,” he’s had a “very varied career” — and with the mountain community. The scenery and safety made it the perfect place to raise his family. 

“Whenever I would apply for jobs, my wife would say, ‘Why are you applying for jobs? I don’t want to go anywhere else,’” he said. 

Henderson isn’t alone. 


Reason to stay

Over the last decade, the average age of WCU’s faculty has risen from 48 among permanent — meaning tenured and tenure-track — faculty in the 2005-06 academic year to nearly 51 in 2013-14. Meanwhile, the proportion of tenured faculty has increased since 2005 as that of tenure-track faculty has decreased. 

“It means that we are retaining faculty,” said Alison Morrison-Shetlar, university provost. “They are happy. They are getting what they need.”

SEE ALSO: WCU bucks national trend toward more part-time hires

The statistics don’t surprise Gurney Chambers, former professor and dean in the College of Education and Allied Professions. 

Chambers, who retired in 2006, first came to WCU as a student. When he got an offer to teach after completing his graduate degree, he didn’t hesitate to accept. His time at Western had meant a lot to him, and he wanted to pay it forward. 

tenurelarge“I was just an 18-year-old boy of indeterminate potential from a dirt-poor fatherless family in Wilkes County,” Chambers said. “Western convinced me that I could be more than I ever thought I could be, and it gave me the tools and desire and self-confidence to realize my potential. That’s a heck of a gift.”

Coming back as a professor, Chambers appreciated the university’s emphasis on students over university reputation, and he found meaning in working with the type of students Western attracted. 

“It attracted a lot of first-generation college students, and I was one of those,” Chambers said. “They were teachable, they were on the whole polite and they were very appreciative of you helping them to learn.”


Reason to go 

There’s no doubt that the professors interviewed for this article love their school, or that the campus culture and mountain scenery are huge parts of why they stayed. 

But they might not have all agreed with Morrison-Shetler’s statement that, “While salaries might not be increasing, there’s job satisfaction because there’s opportunity for growth as an individual.”

To the contrary, Henderson said, “If I were 20 years younger, I would be doing everything I could to get out of here, and I’m not talking about Western or Cullowhee. I’m talking about the university system.”

The money is part of it — “we haven’t had a meaningful raise in eight years,” Henderson said — but he’s also upset by the state’s increased emphasis on vocational and career-specific training. He fears it could come at the expense of liberal arts programs that have historically been Western’s mainstay. 

“My attitude is we need to be preparing students for their third or fourth jobs, and we don’t do that with narrow vocational education,” he said. “Some of the rhetoric I hear at the state level is scary.”

Mary Byrnes is one of those younger professors who found good reason to leave Western. Starting up as a sociology professor for her first job out of grad school, Byrnes worked for WCU from 2009 to 2011, when she moved back to her hometown of Detroit to teach at Marygrove College. It wasn’t an easy choice. 

“I’ve been to other places, and it’s very rare to have that kind of close-knit faculty, and it was very hard to walk away from,” Byrnes said of Western. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, to leave WCU.”

tenure2largeShe began considering the switch in 2010, when faculty layoffs began in the wake of state budget cuts. Byrnes asked her department chair if she should be worried about her own job.  

“She was like, I don’t have an answer for you,” Byrnes recalled. A poll of her academic contacts brought a clear consensus: start applying for jobs. It was late in the application season, but a job in her hometown popped up, and she got an offer. 

It was tempting. Byrnes’ research was focused in Detroit, where her new college would be, and WCU had limited travel funds. Plus, there was the whole issue of job security and the draw of a hometown. Still, she said, she liked Western, and she didn’t want to leave. She explained the situation to her dean, hoping to work out some kind of deal. A lighter teaching load, a little extra travel money, perhaps a bump in salary. But the dean, she said, didn’t offer her anything. 

“I wasn’t asking for a $10,000 raise or anything,” she said. “It would have put me in a bad position had I stayed after that because it would be like, ‘You can just take advantage of me and I’ll be OK.” 

Still, Byrnes said, she remembers WCU fondly, still sometimes wondering if she made the right choice. It’s not surprising that a lot of people have stayed as long as they have. 


Changes and status quo 

In comparison to the 40 years that Chambers taught at Western, those two years Byrnes spent in Cullowhee are just a blip on the radar. When asked about budget cuts and salary stagnation, Chambers said they were perennial issues. The things faculty members gripe about now are the same things they complained about when he first came on the payroll.

“For as long as I was associated with the university, salaries was always a concern. Not enough money for professional development was always a concern,” Chambers said. 

“There were periods when we had more money to pursue those areas than we have at present. It is a difficult time not just for higher education but for all areas of society right now.”

The pendulum swings. 

But not always back to the same place it started. Western has evolved wildly since Chambers first walked on as a freshman to a campus of just over 1,000 students. 

“Today we have over 10,000 students with a broader array of academic programs,” he said. “It’s far more comprehensive of an institution than it was in the early days of employment.”

But while the university’s letting more students in, it’s also attracting a higher caliber of student, a more diverse range of students. Chambers feels that Western’s been able to do that without sacrificing the student-focused attitude.

“Western asks students, ‘How can we help you improve your life?’ rather than ‘How will our accepting you enhance our status in the broader academic community?’” Chambers said. “I like that. It’s the same beautiful, caring place that it was when I was a student.”

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