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A few weeks from now, I'll be traveling for a flyout interview to a SLAC (small liberal arts college) in the eastern United States. The college is very small, less than 1,500 students. If hired, I would be teaching philosophy and other topics in a traditional liberal arts and humanities curriculum.

In many ways this is a perfect job for me. The teaching load is 4/4 (that is, 4 courses per semester, no summer teaching required), but I have long wanted to be at a teaching-focused institution. The college is in a small, quiet town in a beautiful area of the country with affordable living. The colleagues I've spoken to so far have been friendly and helpful, and the students seem good. I foresee being able to get tenure fairly easily. For me, all of these features form a very attractive combination. I know it's impossible to predict the future, but at the very least I could see myself spending many years working at this college, assuming there were no major surprises.

My big concern--and I don't know any way other to frame this--is the long-term viability and stability of the college. It has a very small endowment, and as far as I can tell, does not regularly receive donations of any meaningful size. The college weathered the most recent economic challenges here in the US, and has more students enrolled now than at any other point in its history. But my worry is simply that, one day, in response to economic or other issues, it's just going to fold. Then I ask myself whether I could get a job applying out of there, what I would do if I had to leave academia, and so on.

I have no evidence to indicate that anything like this might happen in the near future; in fact, the little information I do have suggests that the college is doing well. But I still worry. I've thought about the possibility of taking a prospective offer with an exit plan: going in ready to publish all of my dissertation research to fill out my CV, in order to make myself competitive should I need to apply out down the road. But that's the best I have so far.

I'd like to ask for your help. My questions are:

  1. What questions can I tactfully and respectfully ask while on my visit to probe for information about my concern? (Keep in mind that I won't have received an actual job offer while visiting; I assume I could ask more direct questions later, were they to make an offer.)
  2. What else should I be looking for on the visit that might help me better understand the college's long-term viability, if anything?
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    If you get two job offers, it will probably be easy to assess which employer is more stable. If you get one job offer, take it and then form a plan for any potential failure. Joining a failing institution is better than unemployment. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 26 at 23:30
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    Ask to see an annual report that includes financial data. Check the institution's bond rating. Ask what the "discount rate" on tuition is. Ask the dean about the institution's enrollment management plan- how are they going to deal with the impending decline in the number of 18-year-old high school graduates. (from 3.5 million high school graduates per year now to 3 million per year in 2025.) – Brian Borchers Feb 27 at 0:18
  • This is a great question and I wish I could upvote it more. I had a position at a SLAC where I knew going in that they had some financial issues but the severity wasn't clear to me until after I was hired. And it clearly caused massive stress for the faculty and staff. – JoshuaZ Feb 27 at 0:57
  • @BrianBorchers, thanks. If they make an offer, I will ask about an annual report and enrollment plans. – twoblackboxes Feb 27 at 1:13
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    Another important thing that HR should tell you about is the pension plan. A defined benefit (traditional pension) plan is risky in that the institution might go broke and not honor its pension obligations. A defined contribution plan (they put money into an account with TIAA-CREF or similar institutions for you) is less risky in that sense, although you still have the risk that your investment may do poorly. – Brian Borchers Feb 27 at 4:07
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While college failures are rare they do happen, especially in generally poor economic situations. But I think that mismanagement is more likely to be a factor when they do fail. But some advice, probably not complete.

I hope the place is regionally accredited with one of the major agencies. Otherwise, not a great bet.

I hope the place is not for profit. Otherwise...

I hope the place is a bit diversified in course offerings and student body and faculty and administration. A place traditionally founded and run by a single family is less of a sure bet.

I hope the place draws students from a wider, rather than a narrower, geographical area. A national or international student body is best, but a few places can make do with only a regional reputation. How wide is their reputation?

I hope they don't need to accept every applicant for financial reasons. Otherwise they have no cushion when times get bad.

It is good if they have some endowment that they manage wisely as a cushion and to enable opportunities.

I hope that they are open to new ideas, both in curriculum, and in management, but that is hard to judge. I hope that they don't need to chase every new trend to stay viable.

I hope that the faculty is collegial, both within and across disciplines, though that is more of an indicator of a good work environment than longevity.

I hope that a lot of decisions are made by the faculty and that the faculty is generally listened to in important discussions; curriculum and beyond. And that the administration respects those decisions.

I hope that the board of directors is also diversified, not just cronies of the college president.

I can probably think of more and will update as it occurs. I've worked at a couple of problematic places. None failed, but they did fail at being a satisfying place to work at times.

  • I should have been clearer on at least these points--it is regionally accredited, and not for profit. – twoblackboxes Feb 27 at 1:12
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Over the forty year period of a faculty career, any kind of institution is likely to fail or change until it is unrecognizable.

If your goal is to get the job, during the interview, ask how they plan to change and evolve over decades. Then, tell them how you would help them achieve their long term goals.

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    Helpful, but the choice isn't just between joining a (possibly) failing institution and unemployment--it's between joining a (possibly) failing institution and one or more of returning to my PhD for one more year, taking a postdoc, or leaving academia. – twoblackboxes Feb 27 at 1:11
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    If you really want a career in academia, finishing your PhD should be a top priority. – Buffy Feb 27 at 1:15
  • @twoblackboxes That would be a different question on stack exchange, one that would depend on your field of research. In most fields, you should not assume you will ever get a second faculty job offer. An extra year of PhD is rarely a good idea. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 27 at 1:16
  • @Buffy it depends; some fields primarily hire ABDs into faculty positions. Others prefer many years of postdoc experience. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 27 at 1:17
  • This is true of any institution, not just academia. But the OP may not be too aware of it, because philosophy, as an academic discipline, is at the ultra-stable end of the spectrum. The joke that "the entire content of western philosophy for the last 2500 years is just footnotes to Plato's original papers" has some truth in it, otherwise it wouldn't be funny. But students are smart enough to see that the sort of job opportunities for which a philosophy degree is a good qualification are not the same today as they were 50 or 100 years ago. No students = no faculty! – alephzero Feb 27 at 11:24
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This is a tricky situation as you seem to be venturing for years long stability rather than your own development, which could offer you new opportunities in the future.

The experiences you get there, even if short lived, could be meaningful and help you grow professionally. Some institutions would only consider you if you've had such an amount of experiences for instance.

With that and your concerns in mind, I'd ask the following:

  1. How do the faculty members develop themselves here?

    Is there space for the staff at the institution to engage in interesting research, host events or anything else that helps them become better academics/professionals in the long run? If this doesn't tell you the long term goals of the institution, it could at least provide you with some networks to rely on afterwards if you get answered positively. Otherwise, if the economy doesn't crush them, stagnation will.

  2. Who and How are the long running academics in the institution?

    Ask this to know if the institution can retain talent. High rotation of staff is usually a red flag for many reasons. This is also a good question to ask because it shows you have an interest in staying.

Outside of that, I doubt you'll get much more out of them. No such thing as a crystal ball for this sort of thing. The fact they are open to hiring is a point in their favor, usually.

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I would be a bit concerned in your place based on the news.

It's hard to manage a college well, and easy to screw up. And it can be caused by administrators, staff, and students as well. Moreover, liberal arts and humanities tend to attract trouble (more than natural science, engineering, CS).

There were two well-known cases that reached international news: Evergreen and Mizzou. (their fame reached Eastern Europe, where I live) Maybe there were more. Neither went bankrupt, but trouble means low enrollment, repeals donations (people donate to different institutions/causes), and makes downsizing inevitable in the long run. Read about them, figure out the common mistakes, and try to determine how probable similar events are at this college.

Philosophy is interesting as a hobby, and I respect it, but I'm not sure - apart from teaching it - what else can you do with that. Maybe this is still your best chance given your education. If you can, even if you accept this offer, look for a more "well-rounded" university to move to. Maybe focus on your language skills, the market values it more than philosophy.

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