Eclipsed by enrollment: How declining numbers cost four instructors their jobs


CW / Leah Goggins and Rebecca Griesbach

A month before the first day of classes, four instructors in the English Language Institute did not receive contract renewals for the upcoming year.

Keely Brewer | @keelykbrewer, Assistant News Editor

A month before the first day of classes, four instructors at the University’s English Language Institute received notice that their contracts would not be renewed for the upcoming academic year. 

Although the review of appointments within the ELI is standard procedure, this year’s decision came later than usual due to a decline in international student enrollment. 

This decision followed months of reassurance from the University’s administration that budget cuts would not impact current employees. 

In an interview with The Crimson White on April 30, UA President Stuart Bell said he hoped to minimize impact on current employees. His stated plan involved budget cuts that affect new hires rather than current employees who “are part of our family, part of our community.” By proceeding with only critical or externally funded hires, Bell said the University could avoid budget cuts that impact its faculty and staff. 

This promise has held true across campus but leaves room for concern among faculty facing renewal of one-year contracts if the pandemic’s financial impact does not lessen before the next fiscal year. 

A Downward Trend

The ELI is an English language learning program for international students. Because it is funded by tuition, its budget fluctuates heavily with enrollment, and the program’s enrollment has seen a downward trend in the last 4-5 years.  

“The ELI is a self supporting unit on campus,” the program’s director Bill Wallace said. “We’re charged with making ends meet.”

As director, Wallace reviews faculty appointments each year and renews contracts based on enrollment projections. He reports to Teresa Wise, associate provost for international education and global outreach. 

A recent analysis predicts that new international student enrollment in the U.S. for the upcoming year will fall between 63% and 98%. 

The program’s fall 2019 enrollment of 71 students was below average based on information provided on the Capstone International Center  website. This year’s Fall I enrollment is “certainly under ten students,” Wallace said. 

The downward trend of ELI enrollment in recent years coupled with a projected decline in enrollment for the upcoming year heightened concerns, and instructors initiated conversations with Wallace as early as January. 

Review of Enrollment Projections

In a Jan. 27 email, following conversations with UA administration, Wallace assured faculty members that “no personnel cuts at the ELI are expected for the next academic year.” 

After the University transitioned to remote learning, “there was nothing but normal communication about the department and adapting classes online,” one instructor said despite concerns because of the pandemic’s impact on international travel

Wallace provided reassurance to faculty on April 9 that all contract faculty members would be offered renewed annual appointments unless circumstances changed, and that appointment letters could be expected by the end of May. 

At the end of May, when instructors originally anticipated news of appointment letters, they were told the University would review enrollment projections before decisions were finalized. This review is part of the standard process of contract renewals for the ELI, but this year’s timeline differed because of COVID’s impact on international students. 

Wallace scheduled a tentative meeting with faculty members at the end of June to discuss how the ELI would address low enrollment projections. The meeting was postponed twice given that plans for the upcoming year were still not concrete. 

While unable to provide answers to increasingly concerned instructors, Wallace outlined the potential outcomes: lowering employment workloads and salaries, reducing the number of faculty appointments, or a combination of both. 

A standard end-of-session faculty meeting was scheduled for July 17 but cancelled the day prior. The following Monday, four instructors were notified via email that their contracts would not be renewed. 

“We went remote because of the virus in March, and our numbers have just plummeted since then,” Wallace said. “Unfortunately, you know, there’s not a strong return on numbers expected anytime soon.” 


The ELI retains ten full-time instructors following the decision. The University is saving at most $200,000 by terminating the contracts of these four instructors, according to UA payroll data.

Matt Fajack, UA’s vice president for finance and operations, sent an email to employees on July 22 outlining $30 million in budget reductions for the fiscal year 2021. 

As we prepare for the fall semester, the University has seen a significant increase in expenses associated with returning our faculty, staff and students to campus in the safest manner possible,” wrote Fajack. “We’ve been able to do this all with no layoffs or salary reductions and no increase in tuition.”

The email stated each college or unit will have the flexibility to designate where they take the reductions, but “Employees may not be laid off.” 

“I would not define what happened here as a layoff,” Wallace said. “Our faculty are on one-year renewable appointments.” 

The news of contracts not being renewed within a month of the semester’s start sparked concern among other employees on one-year appointments. 

Colleagues Show Support 

Following the termination of the ELI instructors’ contracts, United Campus Workers of Alabama organized a fundraiser to support their former colleagues in the form of rent and mortgage payments and relocation expenses. 

Garrett Bridger Gilmore, an English instructor and leader of Safe Return UA, voiced the disappointment and anger felt by UCW after learning that four instructors had lost their positions without notice. The ability of workers to support each other was encouraging, Gilmore wrote, but “demonstrates that workers need to rely on each other, not promises from administration, to get through the pandemic.” 

“The administration has promised to protect jobs as it manages the budget fallout of the pandemic, so this decision shocked many of us,” Gilmore wrote. “Academic jobs don’t just pop up overnight, so if an instructor is expecting a contract renewal and suddenly doesn’t get one it throws their entire life out of balance.”