Monday, June 06, 2005


Keeping the Line Warm

Another Damned Medeivalist
made a good point in a comment on an earlier entry. Some older faculty don’t want to retire because they can’t be sure that their positions will be replaced. (In academic jargon, they’d lose the ‘line,’ or position.) If the choice is between a senior tenured prof and a slew of adjuncts, department chairs could be excused for prevailing upon their most expensive faculty to stick around.

There’s some truth to this. I’ve been forced to leave a frustrating number of retirements unreplaced, and I can’t guarantee anybody, at this point, that any given position will actually be filled.

This cycle can quickly become self-fulfilling. If more veteran faculty stick around, their (comparatively) high salaries make the underlying financial situation worse, making replacements of the few who do leave less likely. If an entire cohort went at once, we could be reasonably certain of replacing at least a substantial fraction of it; if only a few go, it’s hard to replace any.

Last Spring I actually had a senior professor tell me that, if I could guarantee in writing that he would be replaced, he’d put in his retirement notice. The offer was tempting, in some ways, but I couldn’t guarantee that I could keep my promise (nor did I completely trust him to keep his). He’s still here, and our fiscal situation continues to erode.

(This wasn’t just a lack of nerve. The precedent, once established, would be toxic.)

To my mind, this is the slam-dunk argument for a mandatory retirement age. If I know, at the start of a year, that I have at least (say) five professors retiring, I can start to plan. As it is, I can only guesstimate. They might go, they might not. And since salary is mostly a function of seniority, the ones who extend their stay at the end cost the most.

(Last year, I asked HR to check some figures. They reported that we have more f-t faculty over 65 than under 40. Since then, the ratio has worsened.)

I’ve argued upwards for ‘trip wires’ for individual departments and programs: set (at least internally) acceptable minima for each area, and authorize replacements when those levels are threatened. The response I keep getting, which is frustrating for being true, is that we need the savings now, and we need them wherever we can get them. If a particular program has to take it on the chin, that’s a shame, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So we go careening past my trip wires in some areas, while others remain fully staffed with some very senior, tenured people. And the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, has ensured that I can’t do anything about it.

Sorry, no clever conclusion to this one. Just an increasing sense of frustration.

This sounds so much like XU, where I work, and especially my dept. We're small--13 faculty right now--and only 2 of us are untenured. We have some deadwood that's beyond belief. I dream about what we could do if only they'd leave--assuming we kept their lines, of course.

XU was trying to improve its stature several years ago, and so had a policy of trying to hire mostly established faculty. Now, they've changed that policy, but everyone's still in the mindset that we should be able to get prominent people if we want them. So the dept is constantly raging about which subfield should be able to hire a senior person should the administration give us a senior line. It's definitely made the relations among the faculty a little sour.
As I am but a lowly high school teacher and not in higher academia, I'm a bit confused. Please help me! Why, exactly, should anyone who is retiring care whether or not anyone replaces them? They're retired! I'm not being snippy, I just don't understand the situation.
I find this interesting, as I'm at a university in the UK. My former department (which was most recently ranked at the 4th best in the UK) was shut down because faculty left who weren't replaced. We lost two top academics to much, much better offers (1 to a gorgeous climate, 1 to a sweetheart deal with a foreign university). Then another full-timer (good, not world-beating) left. Then a long-time part-timer left under odd circumstances (the police discovered an interest in something the police, the university, and more or less the rest of the world profoundly wished he were not interested in). Minus 3 1/2 staff, in a small department, the uni chose to trade it to another university for one of their small departments, creating two larger departments. Everyone, EVERYONE, hated it. Support staff (including the absolute gold standard of departmental secretaries) were let go...staff had to move, or commute for 45 minutes (a big deal in England, though maybe not in the states).

Worst of all, they traded my beloved department for theology. THEOLOGY!!! It burns my soul.

On the other hand, without tenure, lots of good young academics get full time appointments, although on short contracts (3 years or so). There is a sort of informal tenure, in that if you're at a department for a while, they won't force you out. And there are always opportunities to move to interesting places. There also are really no TAs, in the US sense...discussion groups and tutorials may be run by PhD students, and some do have lectures, but as an undergrad, I knew every member of the faculty on a first-name basis within a month.
ianqui -- I hear ya...

greg -- I've wondered that, too. In a way, at least it shows some loyalty to their discipline/department, but just as often I suspect it's a bluff, or a way of making the inability to cut the cord seem high-minded. Hard to say.

guy -- Love the three-year renewables idea. A few universities do that here: I know that NYU and Duke both have teaching faculty on similar arrangements. That said, the spectre of political/administrative purges for dissention is very real in the absence of tenure.

Theology burns your soul. I like that...
Guy -- if you're the same Guy who posted at NK's -- Once I get some actual published stuff on my Cv, I'll be looking for those three-year jobs! Unless I've got something more secure by then. For me, the real tragedy is that many departments -- even in your (very) general part of the world aren't replacing the medievalists ...
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