Tuesday, October 11, 2005

 

Zombies

I recently attended a conference of academic administrators from around my state, and discovered that an organizational quirk of my school is actually widespread. We add programs frequently, and call it responsiveness, but we almost never eliminate programs. (My school has eliminated a grand total of one, and that was in the 1980’s.) Zombie programs walk among us, feasting on the resources of the living.

Zombie programs survive largely because of tenure. At my college (and many others), tenure is with the college, rather than with the department. That means that if we eliminate a program, we’re obligated to find alternate jobs for the people who used to work in it, assuming they’re qualified. (For example, most of the IT department can teach math, so if we eliminated the IT department, the tenured faculty would simply move to math.) Only those few who are completely unqualified for anything else get fired. As a result, the actual savings from any proposed program elimination are too small to be worth the political headache, and the zombies stick around.

I wouldn’t care so much, except that zombie programs have a way of multiplying over the years. Since retirements are astonishingly slow in coming, we carry these programs for decades. They use resources that could have gone for core programs (history, English, etc.), forcing those core departments to replace retirees with adjuncts. We hollow out our profit centers (chalk-and-talk gen ed classes) to keep our zombie programs undead.

The K-12 districts have a way of handling undead employees or programs. When a superintendent leaves, the hire an ‘interim’ whose job is to be the bad guy. The interim takes out some zombies, then moves on; the next permanent person then harvests the goodwill from 1. not being the interim person and 2. presiding over growth. We haven’t done that, though there’s certainly an argument for it.

The proprietary in which I used to work had a great many flaws, but one flaw it didn’t have was undead programs. Since there was no tenure system, a program that couldn’t carry its own weight anymore simply got the ax. This freed up resources for new programs (or, more annoyingly, for stockholders). We don’t have that option, for all intents and purposes, so even in dire fiscal straits we continue to support small programs that have long since outlived their usefulness. We make up the difference by adjuncting-out ever more of the academic core.

Protecting long-term employees comes at the cost of freezing out new ones. I’d love to hire eager new Ph.D.’s in the core academic disciplines on full-time lines, but that would require killing some zombies that we just haven’t been willing to kill. So the zombies walk among us, and new Ph.D.’s keep on adjuncting, hoping someday to catch a break. And students wonder why they can’t get the classes they actually want or need.

Sometimes being the good guy requires first being the bad guy.

Comments:
So what kind of programs are zombie programs? I'm simply curious. Theater, art, music, journalism??
 
Most of our zombie programs are in the vo/tech side of the house. They very nearly killed one that had very low enrollment, and only one full time instructor, but they kept it alive and I'm not sure why. Programs that mix Arts/Science and Vo Tech here have notoriously low enrollments and are problematic.
 
No way am I answering that! All I'll say is that they're scattered pretty evenly across the entire curriculum.
 
I know that where I work the Archeoogy, Anthro and Classics departments would be considered 'zombie' programmes in some sense: very low enrolments, a lack of obvious marketability, not tied to particualr employment demands etc.
Yet those programmes often attract the strongest and most studious of the students. And, surprisingly, their graduates end up as employable as any other arts grads (very).
But I know thos programmes are expensive. I know that a certain rationale of economy of expediency would axe them in a second.
Yet I think there are good reasons for them to survive... so long as we can actually serve the students in them well. We recently axed a programme because we did not, in fact, have appropriate resources, whereas a nearby university does have them.
But if a university can't be a place for reflective thought, for preservation of things that the public at large does not recognise as valuable (but may yet again inthe future, so long as we don't capitulate to market demand), then what will become of us? The preservation/conservation of knowledge is surely as important as production of the new.
There's a book out called "No place to think" by a pair of UBC poli sci profs. and it gets at the problem of beign so research and market driven that universities have become a terrible place to spend time thinking, reflecting etc.
I know a CC is different in mission, but I hope that it won't be resigned to just feeding passing market fancies.
 
CanuckDoc -- Actually, I'm trying to get at the opposite. We're so caught up in establishing new programs based on what's hot at the moment that we forget that we're tenure-based. When the hot program cools, we're stuck with it. To pay for it, we have to neglect our evergreens, by which I mean the traditional academic disciplines.

It's too easy, and frankly misleading, to suggest that budgetary reality is opposed to the classics. Actually, the classics are much more cost-effective than many newer programs, which is one of the reasons tuition goes up as fast as it does.
 
Ah CC Dean,
As Anna Smith/Audrey Hepburn said to Joe Bradley/ Gregory Peck at the end of Roman Holiday:

"I am so very glad to hear you say it."

(...and apologise for mis-reading your initial point.)

I would maintain that bizarre forms of accounting I can never fully comprehend at the governance level continue to bemoan the exhorbitant price of things like Classics, philosophy... etc.
 
A Gregory Peck comparison? I'll take it...
 
If you are the Dean, and it's a good idea, why not do it? Don't wait for an 'interim’ ' post, do it yourself. Or will that make your position too disliked and thus dificult to continue with?
 
Because they have tenure and I don't. I'd be out on my keister.
 
When you start new programs hire on rolling contracts with no possibility of tenure
 
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