Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Compromise and Precedent

Money shortages create all manner of frictions.

Say you have a large group that believes, with varying levels of truth, that it's underpaid. Say that there's nowhere near enough money floating around to bring the entire group up to the level it wants. (Not that this ever happens, but bear with me.) Barring a visit from the Money Fairy, or a really drastic, from-the-ground-up restructuring in which absolutely everything is on the table, you basically have four choices:

  1. Just say no, and leave it at that. Let the discontent and/or injustice continue.

  2. Take what little money you have, and divide it across the board. Hope that a truly paltry increase will paper things over.

  3. Take what little money you have, and ask the group to propose a fair internal division.

  4. Do triage, and target relatively meaningful increases to the worst cases. Leave the rest alone.

The astute reader will notice quickly that all four options suck.

The first option is the easiest, and in some ways, the best. It's evenhanded, it saves money, and it's easy to implement. Its only drawback is that it completely ignores the underlying problem.

The second option is also evenhanded, and also easy to implement. But it manages to both burn your budget and leave the problem unsolved, making it the worst of both worlds.

The third option looks good on paper, but flops in practice. In the absence of a union, how do you even know who to talk to? Who gets to represent whom? And with a union, the first move will always be “the total number has to be much bigger.” Well, yes, and I'd love to have washboard abs. Not. Gonna. Happen. (The second move is usually “that's your problem,” thereby defeating the purpose of the conversation.) It's theoretically possible that this could work. In the settings I've seen, nope.

The fourth option sometimes wins by default, but that doesn't make it right. The impulse to craft a political compromise will quickly crash headfirst into legalistic arguments from parity and precedent. “How come they got increases and we didn't? How was this decision made?” Suddenly, you're defending your right to even make a decision. And heaven help you if the protected classes aren't evenly distributed between groups. Allegations of favoritism – and worse – will fly from the first day.

And anything like this will be the hardest, by far, to implement, since you'll need documentation for criteria, verification, application, etc. You'll annoy nearly everybody, make a bunch of new enemies, and put the beneficiaries in an awkward position. Although in some ways it's the 'right' answer, it's also the most dangerous and internally costly.

The shame of it is that the fourth option actually comes closest to fairness, assuming that the decision-maker is accountable. Options one and two don't even try to address fairness. Option three sounds fair, but in practice it usually rewards the squeakiest wheels, rather than the most deserving.

The tension between legal arguments and political ones is chronic and painful. Legal arguments are based on uniformity, process, and elephantine memory. Political arguments are based on what can actually be done at the moment. With infinite resources, it's possible to satisfy both; simply raise the floor as high as it takes to stop the complaining. But with strapped resources, you have to make a choice.

So a quick survey of my wise and worldly readers: which option would you choose?

You haven't really expressed whether their argument of being underpaid is based on a sense of fairness, or a sense of market value. If they are truly being paid "less than market value" then your choices are really somewhere in the realm of either taking up their banner (with the supporting documentation, market surveys, and the like) and fighting for some more money, or waiting for the market forces to work, pulling away the good ones, leaving you with those that you wish you had the courage to drop.

Now, I realize asking for "more money" is hard, and perhaps impossible. One would like to think, though, that creative people can find creative ways of meeting needs while still finding economies. Yes--the first response is going to be "that's not possible" but as you so often point out, these near-sighted and narrow-minded views are also often bureaucratic and wrong.
Heh, you could try to have folks start to quantify the marginal value of a dollar in their departments . . . such would be an interesting intellectual exercise, if nothing else.

Alternately, the response could be, "Yes, you are underpaid. I have no power to change this situation. Please let me know who does, and I will support you in your attempt to change this."
Gee, Dean Dad, would you quit with the straw-man anti-union argument? Believe me, at my SoCal CC we know when there's no money or when there's a little bit and when there's lots.

Budget transparency solves lots of problems and makes your option #3 a good one.

As Pseudonymous says it depends on their argument. It has been my experience that it has more to do with a sense of fairness than a sense of market value. This sounds remarkably like the adjunct faculty cry of "equal pay for equal work" that I hear several times per year.

This of course ignores the fact that their consideration of equal work is only what happens in the classroom. They ignore all of the other associated duties that full-time faculty have that part-timers are not expected--or asked--to perform. When confronted with this reality, the only response I have ever heard is that they would gladly perform those duties if asked.

I would gladly perform the fundraising functions of my college president, does that mean I should be entitled to the same salary as the president?
I'm somewhat biased, because our department is CHRONICALLY in this position.

You HAVE to do 4. You have to find the people you want there over the long haul and make sure they get paid - especially in the present situation where so many salaries have been frozen for so long that a less essential member can simply interview for another job and get a substantial raise that way.

The single biggest cratering I've ever seen in a department was when a combination of "do nothing" and "spread the token raises evenly among everybody" played one too many times to the young professor who always taught overloads and yet regularly found himself presenting papers at meetings (and increasingly taking STUDENTS to meetings and having THEM present) and had far and away the top publication rate in the department. It did not take Next Door State School long to figure out who the budding superstar was, and wave money at him, and out the door he went. The department split down the middle - the senior, do-nothing faculty on one side, the young, motivated faculty on the other. Most of the young punks headed for the exits, citing the school's lack of ambition.

(And of course, the irony is those are the guys who already have the lower salaries - the real savings is pretty close to nil.)

So, yeah, like I said, I'm biased.
anonymous 6:40 makes an interesting point--except for the loss of some highpowered senior professors as they try to overcome salary inversion.

Perhaps this isn't as prevalent in the Lib Arts disciplines, but fo ra while in the Business (and some areas, Engineering) disciplines the competition was on for the new Assistant profs. So much so that the Full professors (yes, full, with tenure, and still publishing, bringing in research funds, representing the Univ at major functions, etc) were actually earning less than the new Assistant professors.

Given this, it was not hard to understand when other Universities started luring the big name profs away from their long term positions by simply offering them, well, competitive salaries.

Perhaps what is missing here is option 5: Find those people you really want to keep. Determine to throw funding at them. Be willing to make "sacrifices" as necessary (people, equipment, programs) if they don't or won't fit in with the emphasis on performance.

Perhaps this is what Pseudonymous was referring to?
"I would gladly perform the fundraising functions of my college president, does that mean I should be entitled to the same salary as the president?"

This pearl of ascerbic wisdom, left by Anonymous at 5:48, misses a key point. The job of professor and the job of president compares as apples and oranges; the job of adjunct and the job of professor compares more like oranges to tangerines.
I was an exempt staff in this situation, where exempt staff had NO way to get salary increases except the (ir)regular state-wide across the board pay raises.

Pay FAR below market rate was a real issue. Our administration attempted to do number 4, but didn't say so at the outset...a handful (under 10 IIRC) of people just got raises out of the blue, which got around, which raised a ruckus.

And then suddenly there were consultants, and "Bob & Bob" style interviews (ala Office Space), filling out new job descriptions, etc.

Which was obnoxious, but I think it was the bit of fairness that was needed -- using some outside standards to evaluate the inequities and then balancing from there.

I myself was quite startled to discover that huge numbers of things that I'd been doing for several years weren't even on my job description. They should've been, but my fairly-techie job had evolved since I started there. I ended up getting quite a bump up, between that and the fact that I was making absurdly below market range for my type of job. (It was my only real raise in 6 years.)

Of course, even with all that, it was not especially difficult to find a job of the same kind in another industry that paid at least 4K more. That would be the "there just isn't enough money" part.
To answer your question, our CC has (without a union) a specific plan in place to allocate resources for salaries by following option 3. We could do this without a union because we have a governance system that provided a clear mechanism to select representative members of the faculty and administration to work out the details, consulting with the entire faculty as needed.

Dean Dad, you used to be an educator, right? Lesson plans, learning goals, clear communication of new ideas and facts. Why have you abandoned those skills as an administrator?

As I see it (and have seen it), you have three choices regarding budget matters. You can run the operation from the top, making the decisions yourself without any outside advice, taking full responsibility for your actions *and* for communicating the reasons you took them. Or you can communicate the situation at your college, involve other interested parties, and then make the decision yourself - taking full responsibility for the decision and communicating your reasons for making it. Or you can just do things and not communicate at all what the budget situation is and why you are doing what you are doing.

If you fail to communicate, you will fail in the classroom and the board room. If you communicate well, as at our college (at times), all of the stakeholders will buy into a "least harm" option that rests on a rational footing.

Regarding your option 1, if you don't put the little money you have into dealing with your biggest problem, did you just plan to rebate it to the students or taxpayers?

As for whimpering about "you'll need documentation for criteria, verification, application, etc", what part of "being a manager" did you miss at Dean School? That is what you are paid to do, just as the faculty are paid to document the criteria used to assign grades, verify they have been met, etc.

It's your job. Do it. If you don't like doing it, go back to the classroom or go into industry. (Hint: managers in industry have to do the same things.)
I have to echo the comments of previous posters:
1. If salary is truly below market value, then market forces will go to work on your best faculty.
2. Option #3 can work well in many circumstances. My own department (economics) used CUPA data for our discipline and fit a regression equation to divide up a pool of salary adjustment money. Furthermore, because we came up with a specific process with no infighting, our department got adjustments while others received none.
CCPhysicist, if I may go down your options and DD's actual job,

The first option, rule by fiat, is impossible. He's middle management, and entrenched polices and practices prevent him from doing as he likes. Given the nature of higher education, particularly in the public sector, those entrenchments are huge and real. So this first option is a fantasy.

The second option, get input, make your decisions, and communicate the logic, is what he actually does. What DD mentions on this blog (and in real life), time and again, is how a small, annoying handful of people either don't listen or don't pay attention in the first place, preferring to ascribe hidden motives and decide the true decisions were rooted in personal jealousies and ancient grudges.

The third option is your attempt to seem biting and witty, so I'll ignore it, as it has no bearing on reality.

The "market will fix it" argument is true, in a way. However, the pre-existing indestructable structures of higher education make the effects of "the market fixing it" a huge problem.

First, there's the problem of the actual job market, which is awful. The talent pool for academic jobs is enormous and the job pool is small. The economist's response to this is probably, "well, that'll depress wages and drive people out of the industry." Both are true, primarily the latter. The problem is that the prep work for the job leaves one (usually) in huge debt and only trained for a particular kind of job. Which is a rare and low-paying one. So the market's already taking care of things there. That the people on the bad end of this are griping should surprise and anger no one. It's a rotten place to be.

Then there's the forced shrinkage of the job pool itself, created by three non-market conditions: declining governmental aid, tenure, and seniority-driven pay raises. The schools receive less money to operate, which they can make up through tuition to a point. So "more money for more jobs" isn't going to happen until the taxpayers decide they want it to. Don't hold your breath. Then add in that the existing jobs are held by people who never have to retire, can't be forced out, and cost more with each year, and you're in a big ol' pickle.

Pseudonymous raises the idea of raising more money. Yes, that'd be delightful. How? Lobby the state to increase higher ed funding? Good luck with that. It's worth trying, of course, but to hang your hat on it is akin to counting on winning an office March Madness pool to cover your rent.

Pseudo also suggests letting the marketplace work its magic and suck away those it can. Well, it already does, but to let that happen without a fight would be to sacrifice the CC's future. What happens when the oldsters finally do retire? Those others who also served are long gone, sucked away by market forces, and the school is in trouble. DD wants to prevent that. It's not good for the school. The problem is, how can you fight it? If you've got answers better than "try harder to get money," we're listening. Remember to keep in mind the particular constraints of CCs. This isn't a regular business, where failure means you fold up shop and call it a day. You also have to account for the mood of the citizenry, the responsiveness of the state legislatures, and the ossified structures of higher education.

This is my brother's job. I am amazed he keeps as much of his hair as he does.
Dean's Brother:

Might I suggest you re-read my comment. I, in fact, predicted a response such as yours ("we can't get more money..." oh wait, I wrote "that's not possible") and characterized it as the same near-sighted and narrow-minded views "your brother" rants against time and again.

Not so cute when it is your ox (or your sibling and ox) being gored, is it?

Perhaps your response was "off the reservation" but I am somewhat surprised at your quick defense of your brother. Hmmm...
BoDD, you may know what he really does, but what he writes on this blog is that "The third option looks good on paper, but flops in practice.". (For him; it works at our college.) That does not sound like someone who finds that he can negotiate a good plan with the elected union leadership at his college, only to have a small number of other faculty annoy him about the decision reached between faculty and administration. Quite the contrary.

And if he communicated effectively to the other 98% of the faculty, in conjunction with the union leadership, a couple of whiners would be isolated for what they are.

Option 3 works at our college. We changed the "ossified structure of higher ed" at our college, fundamentally altering our pay structure. That change worked to the detriment of some and the benefit of others. It was approved with only a few 'no' votes.

Since I have seen the management system of "make the decision and not communicate" in action, I did not make it to be snarky. Indeed, if the entire faculty is polarized to the point of being uneducable, it is the path of least effort. If they will complain anyway, just do what is best for the college and grow a thicker skin.

I have also seen an administration communicate effectively with the community, generating new money for the college. That is one of the main jobs for the President and his or her top deputies. The public lecture program described yesterday is one of those approaches that can help in that regard.
A few years ago, the city of Kingston needed to save a lot of money. The new city manager went to the union and said, essentially, "I need to cut $X million off the budget. You guys know your jobs. Help me find this money so no one gets laid off."

It worked. The budget was trimmed, service went up, and no one was laid off.
CCPhysicist, I was talking about the three options you listed, not the ones DD did. Your options were "act by fiat and accept it," "collect group opinions and data and stand by it," and "do it in secret and be a weasel." He does #2.

Pseudonymous, for what it's worth, I'm not my brother. Check our writing styles -- they're close, but different enough, and internally consistent. I'm also much sexier. And yes, I did consider your take on the issue, but I ask you: if the solution has been tried, and continues to be tried, in every state, year after year for decades, and keeps failing, is not a little cynicism justified? It's not as though this is a new phenomenon or isolated in DD's school or even state, nor is he the only one dealing with it.

And, to retort rudeness for rudeness, you didn't read my post accurately either. I never suggested not trying; I said not to count on the efforts to work. That's an enormous difference.
Rudeness for Rudeness? Good grief, Charlie Brown...

That said, if I am to conduct an accurate reading, the only real thing you suggested, brother, was lobbying the legislature. If that is your only solution, then you really haven't read my comment. I was talking about being creative. Lobbying is anything but. I think the example given by anon 4:03 is along the lines of what I was thinking--but then again, I generally see that people are reasonable and when presented with a problem, will find ways to solve it. Not "counting on it" but certainly believe it is far more effective than (what still seems to me to be) declared defeatism.

And I wasn't implying you were your brother. I am somewhat curious though why, in all the various discussions here, you stepped in with such a vigorous defense of him on this issue.
I'm in a ranty mood. (I can also hear my brother: "Dude, stop helping!" Sorry, man. Too much coffee today.) Due to over-caffination, I read your initial post as "well, you just aren't trying very hard to raise new money, now are you? You'll say it's impossible, but that's a petty and narrow-minded response!" That's not what you wrote, I know, but it's not far off.

Setting aside my misreading and going by what you actually did write, there's still an assumption in the answer that rankles me. You seem to think that decades of dwindling support to higher education has never been fought, that colleges haven't been trying to establish alternate revenue streams for ages, that DD and his cohorts haven't been working on this very problem for years and years. C'mon, man. They have. And they're frustrated, because it isn't going well. You can ascribe it to widespread stupidity or bureaucratically-created blindness, or you can ascribe it to being a huge challenge that's hard to meet. I see the latter interpretation as being more likely, since we're dealing with such a massive sampling: damn near every college in America, and over many years.

I apologize for being all shirty. Tomorrow, decaf.
Just for the record, I can also vouch (for whatever it's worth) that Brother of DD really is his brother in real life. I've met Bro of DD, and his writing clearly is him.

CCPhysicist, congrats on your fellow colleagues acting rationally. I wish that my school could be described the same way.

I once had a dean who governed by "do it in secret and be a weasel." It was as bad as you can imagine.
These discussions of adjunct pay are a bit silly.

As an adjunct, I don't think I should get paid per course what a tenure-track faculty person is paid, but 50% as much would be nice. In fact, 25% as much per course would be nice!
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