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.

Folks have no idea that a salary is not just that. If you offer someone $35,000, they also get (*):

$13,000 for family medical
$3,000 in retirement
$200 in vision
$50 in Life insurance

Actual cost $51,250

(* using my district benefit package. Yours may differ.)

Hiring staff has a tremendous impact. When a position goes vacant, people think you can hire anyone to fill it, or "it's mine- I get to keep it!".

Harsh realities we administrators have to face. Unfortunately, we get to be the bearer of bad tidings. Thus, when people ask "what happened to so-and-so's position?" the answer becomes "the administration cut it" rather than "a variety of economic factors have to be considered prior to filling a position..."
P.S.-My favorite lines of the post?
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.)
Sometimes the rationale from upper adminstration for filling positions can be awfully flawed. In my shop, the sciences and mathematics are all in one department. There is no physics department, no chemistry, no biology; it's all science. It took us a very long time to convince the bean counters (who are not deans, they're in another branch of admin) that science teachers can't necessarily teach math, and vice versa, and we still haven't convinced them that a physics prof can't fill a one or two-section shortfall in biology teachers. (I am a physics professor, and last year I gamely led a section of students in a dissection of a pig uterus, having been given a crash course by one of the bio faculty half an hour before class as I stood there near tears. I haven't had a bio course since I was in high school in 1976.) Yet the bean counters count up the number of class hours in all the sciences and the number of "science faculty" and divide them to determine that our workload is not onerous. Well, it isn't for me, I have a normal load. (Unless you count having to teach two sections of a biological-science course one semester, for which I have no training at all.) One of the bio guys, though, is teaching about twice as much as he should be, because two of the chem faculty are temporarily light. It all averages out, you see.
And then you get the Arts and Letters Dean who doesn't understand why she has to pay more for a new Biology instructor than the new English instructor. It's called "Supply and Demand", hello! You should have coverd that in high school.
Just a note on your title. Since you do get a response back from administration, it should be "Black Box", not "Black Hole".

Love the blog!
A few years ago, the current dean established a "staffing committee" to deliberate over these decisions. We are in a "no net growth" period, and as part of a recent budget cut, we must leave two sabbatical replacement positions unfilled (yes, I know, this is hardly the pain others are feeling). In that environment, the dean didn't feel comfortable making allocation decisions with only administrators.

So, we have a group of about 10, drawn from the administration and key faculty committees who sees all the departmental rationales for new and replacement positions and then discusses their relative merits. This takes about 6 hours of meetings plus some reading time during June. The dean is part of this group. We attempt to find consensus and ultimately only recommend to the dean.

This process has, I think, worked very well. It's pretty transparent, although we are bound by confidentiality for some of the things we discuss, and given the breadth of representation in the group, it has political legitimacy. We've made some tough decisions, including denying tenure-track requests when faculty have retired or left, and largely been respected for it.

This model is one that is probably small liberal arts college-specific, but it does work.
What do we say about the administrations where no response comes back? I think the black hole description fits all too well.

I wouldn't mind if administrators came back with some hard facts (and usually a good comparative review of enrollment figures in a few programs can be helpful to show that you're not really as badly off as you think you are). Or pointed to a clear financial brick wall. I hate it when they try to deal with it by saying nothing at all, yes or no.
Our budget is completely de-centralised and includes salary & related costs, occupancy costs, &c. A percentage is taken off at the center, but otherwise we know what we earn & what our costs are. So we can make a informed financial case for replacements.
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