Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Pigs and Pythons

Like so many other cc’s across the country, mine was founded in the Golden Age (mid 60’s – early 70’s), and most of its full-time faculty was hired within a few years. (It’s so common that I can reveal that without meaningfully compromising anonymity!)

Social scientists have a lovely phrase – “a pig in a python” – to describe a generational cohort moving together through the years. The image captures the faculty here pretty well. At this point, the pig is getting near the end of the python, and (predictably) it isn’t pretty.

The location of the pig has become especially relevant recently, with multiple full-timers falling seriously ill within days of each other. Statistically, it’s not that odd; in that large a group with that high an average age, absenteeism due to health should be expected to climb. The problem is that the pig is so clearly defined within the python that there just aren’t that many people around who can step in when someone gets sick.

Aside from the obvious humanitarian concerns, extended faculty illnesses are unfortunate due to the quirks of academia: expertise in given courses isn’t always shared across entire departments, semesters can’t be adjusted much once they’ve started, and the harm from switching instructors ten weeks into a semester is substantial. In much of private industry, ‘cross-training’ is the norm: a good manager will try to ensure that any given job function has multiple people who can cover it, both to cover for absences and to help make more intelligent operational decisions. In academia, that often doesn’t make sense. If my Japanese instructor gets sick, I can’t just tell my French instructor to step in, no matter how good a sport she might be. I also can’t conduct a full national search for a replacement, since Board of Trustees approval takes a month and I have two days.

It gets weirder. Under FMLA, seriously-ill employees are entitled to 12 weeks. Imagine that the illness strikes two weeks before the semester starts, and the semester is 16 weeks. Assuming that all goes well for the professor, she’s back right in the heart of the semester. At that point, I’m tasked with conjuring enough face-saving makework to justify a full-time salary for the full-timer, while the adjunct actually teaches the classes for an embarrassing fraction of that, since switching instructors at that late date would be grossly unfair to the students. In other words, I have to effect an almost complete separation of work from pay.

Your tax dollars at work!

Honestly, I’d love to see an amendment to the FMLA that addressed semesters, rather than weeks. Then again, I’d love to see a lot of things.

Sometimes it’s even worse. Sometimes, in consecutive semesters, we have to hire the same adjunct as a temporary full-timer to cover for different absences. Then one of the absentees retires. It’s tough to conduct a real national search when LoyalAdjunct is just standing there, but we have to. And it’s even tougher when the search turns up someone better than LoyalAdjunct, especially if LoyalAdjunct has made friends in the department. An emergency hire becomes permanent, based more on geographical convenience than quality. Or, a war ensues between my office and the department. Either is bad.

The pig-in-a-python problem goes far beyond my campus, and far beyond illness leaves. Since salaries are determined mostly by seniority, our average salary is much higher than you might think, even as our entering salaries are low enough that we lose potential hires. Entire pedagogical and research movements have come and gone in the time that some departments here were between hires, leaving no trace here. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does mean that certain departments have become like the fabled Japanese snipers in palm trees who don’t know the war is over. It leads to some odd interpersonal dynamics, too. Since the average age of full-time faculty is as high as it is, people have become (unthinkingly) accustomed to assuming that anyone under 50 is an adjunct. One of the highlights of my first month here was a full professor asking me, to my face, if I was an adjunct. (When I clarified that I was the new dean, the look on her face was priceless.) On those rare occasions when we make new hires, they often find themselves the youngest in their new departmental homes by multiple decades.

The real danger of the pig-in-the-python, obviously, is what happens when the really meaty part of the pig comes out. Will the python have an appetite for new hires, or will it continue to snack on the fast food of an all-adjunct approach? Stay tuned…