Faculty Hiring Disrupted by COVID-19

Among other changes to the college’s daily operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the college’s academic departments have announced hiring freezes for the 2020-2021 academic year. The move comes amid the college’s economic difficulties as a result of the pandemic as well as the inability to properly conduct faculty searches as usual. Most departments were not planning to hire new professors for the 2020-2021 academic year or had completed their faculty hires before the onset of the virus. Other difficulties have prompted some professors to postpone their scheduled sabbaticals for the upcoming year.

The history department has cancelled “all visiting searches that were not finalized due to “COVID-19 health concerns, and the resulting financial challenges the College is facing,” said incoming Chair of History Monica Ringer. Ringer expressed uncertainty as to future decisions the department is to make, stating “it remains to be seen what the financial impact of our shutdown will be — as it is very dependent on multiple factors not least the overall economy and the timeline for the college resuming normal operations … The overall health of the college community in this challenging time is the priority for all of us.”

The political science department was looking to fill a position for a “one-year visiting assistant professor in political theory,” said Chair of Political Science Javier Corrales. “Not being able to fill this position is disappointing because political theory is a fundamental pillar of our discipline.” However, Corrales also stated that “because we have a diverse faculty with diverse interests, we are still able to cover some political theory themes with the current line up for next year.” He referenced Professor of Political Science Thomas Dumm, “a political theorist [who] is planning to teach full time next year,” as well as Visiting Assistant Professor Freke Ette, “who will be teaching two political theory-related courses next year.” Corrales said “we are also lucky that earlier this semester we were able to hire [Ette] a great political theorist to come to Amherst for two years under a program called Consortium for Faculty Diversity.”

Conversely, the biology department was able to finish its hiring of two new faculty members before the virus began spreading in the U.S. The search for a biochemist was completed last fall, according to Chair of Biology Caroline Goutte. The search for a neurobiologist took longer. However, Goutte said that the department was able to offer the candidate a position before complications with the coronavirus reached the U.S. Goutte admitted that “negotiations were a bit extended and delayed, but ultimately and luckily for us the chaotic state did not dissuade her, and she too accepted our offer.”

The psychology department, much like many others, was able to complete their search for necessary faculty early on. Chair of Psychology Julia McQuade said that because “the hiring timeline in psychology is very early, we were able to complete a tenure-track hire in adult clinical psychology, Professor Elizabeth Kneeland, and a visiting professor hire in social psychology, Professor Rebecca Totton.” McQuade said the department is “thrilled to have them join us in the fall.”

Likewise, the Environmental Studies department completed its search for a full time hire during the Fall semester and still plans to bring Rebecca Hewitt on board in the spring as the department’s first environmental scientist, teaching ecosystems ecology. However, with a number of professors planning on taking leave come fall, the department was in the process of hiring a one-year visiting professor. “We were actually quite far in the process and had finished the interviews for the position. However, before we could make an offer, the position in [environmental studies] was canceled by the administration,” said department chair Jill Miller. “While the department was certainly disappointed, we – of course – understand the constraints that new positions (even if only for one-year) place on the budget.” 

The Student was unable to further confirm the administration’s role in directing these hiring freezes.

Some professors, like Chair of European Studies Adi Gordon, have postponed sabbaticals due to the virus. Professor Gordon was set to begin his two-semester sabbatical in Fall 2020, but decided against it in light of mobility restrictions prompted by the coronavirus has postponed. “For me there was a realization that I won’t be able to go to the archives, be able to travel,” said Professor Gordon regarding what prompted the decision.

Many departments such as physics and astronomy, mathematics and statistics, law, jurisprudence and social thought, and economics were not preparing to hire faculty for the upcoming year.