Monday, July 31, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Mapping the Black Hole

A frustrated correspondent writes:

Once a department sends a request for hiring
authorization up to wherever it goes (you for
example), what happens to it?

All I know is that it is either approved or not. How
do folks at your level make that sort of decision?

It would be lovely to say that there’s a consistent method. Maybe, somewhere, there is.

Department chairs like to believe that there’s a natural number of positions to which a department is entitled. (It usually coincides with the historic peak, plus one.) Since they don’t have any budget responsibility beyond their own department, and salaries and benefits are covered by Academic Affairs, this is understandable. It’s also false.

Since the cost of health insurance has gone up faster than the cost of salaries, it’s no longer the case that an institution can break even when hiring two for one. (The old rule of thumb was that if someone at a senior rank retired, his departure freed up enough money for two new hires. This was true as long as salary was the bulk of the cost; now that health insurance has skyrocketed, this doesn’t hold anymore.) Now, if anything, we average one hire for every two departures, with the difference made up via an ever-swelling army of adjuncts. Say that two full professors retire, making 100k each and carrying two health packages, for a total cost of 240k. We hire one new professor at 50k, for a total cost of 70k. (Yes, I’m rounding with reckless abandon. It’s for illustrative purposes.) The difference (240k-70k=170k) is split between the cost of additional adjuncts (probably 10-15k) and trying to patch the chronic, yawning, expanding chasm in the college budget.

In practice, this means we practice a sort of triage in determining which new ‘lines’ (positions) are approved.

Considerations include, but are not limited to: availability of adjuncts in that discipline (English easy, Nursing hard); enrollment trends (don’t throw good money after bad); curricular coverage (going from 15 professors to 14 is one thing; going from one to zero is something else); relative ‘hotness’ of the field (we like to support growth); and accreditation (again, a field like Nursing that has its own special accrediting body gets special consideration). In my experience, interpersonal politics have been surprisingly marginal considerations, though I can’t vouch for other places. Since I’m at a cc, ability to raise research funds is not a consideration. I’m sure that’s different at other kinds of places.

What makes these decisions difficult is knowing that, say, the History department neither knows nor (especially) cares if the English department is just scraping by, and vice versa, so an explanation that strikes me as persuasive may strike the losing department as simply so much administrative bloviating. I’ve gathered that there’s a history of crying wolf when it comes to the budget, so now that we’re actually in the red as a college, many of the longer-term folk simply don’t believe it. Some have asked me to my face, indignantly, “where did the money go?” My short answer is “Blue Cross,” which doesn’t really satisfy them, even though it’s true.

Were we in flusher times, I’d expect to see more defaulting to historic norms, and more room for personal politics. As it is, we just try to stop the worst bleeding. It’s incredibly demoralizing, since I know firsthand what it means to be an adjunct with a Ph.D., and I’ve seen what can happen to departments that go too long between hires. But there just isn’t the fiscal slack to take a flyer on a new program, or to add positions to try to increase diversity. Growth in either of those areas has to come in the context of overall shrinkage.

(To forestall the anticipated flaming: my college also has fewer administrators than it used to. The pain has been spread widely.)

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.