Wednesday, February 11, 2009



We're starting to use the R word in a really serious way. Even with reducing the number of deans, we may not save enough to save every faculty job. While the dust is far from settled on next year's budget, it's pretty clear that we've blown well past our previous worst-case scenarios. Now we have to start looking at faculty retrenchment, at least on a contingency-plan basis.

This is nobody's idea of fun.

Retrenchment in a strong-union environment is a particularly blunt instrument. The faculty contract outlines some very specific rules to follow, including several years' worth of first dibs on a restored job, strict seniority protections, and rights of reassignment for faculty who have the credentials to teach in another area. While there's some room for judgment in terms of program selection, there's almost no room for judgment within a given program.

Whether it makes any sense or not, the last hired in a given area have to be the first fired.

There's a certain fairness built into that, of course. People in the early stages of careers have presumably put down shallower roots here, and have greater mobility. And there's an intuitive appeal to the idea that beyond a certain point, you shouldn't have to look over your shoulder anymore. I get that.

But an automatic 'last hired, first fired' policy has several drawbacks.

First, of course, is that it has nothing to do with quality. We've been very deliberate about hiring terrific people over the last several years, and have batted nearly a thousand. It pains me to think that we'd have to sacrifice some spectacular younger employees to continue to support some, well, less spectacular senior ones who got in when the bar was much lower, or who have gradually started phoning it in. From a student-centered perspective, that's exactly backward.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'm not saying that all younger or newer employees are better than all senior ones. I'm just saying that 'quality' and 'seniority' are not the same thing, and that when they conflict, I'm forced to choose the wrong one.)

Second, in a unionized setting, the newest employees tend to be the cheapest. By definition, letting them go gets you less bang for the buck. This means you have to fire more of them to make up the difference.

Third, the youngest cohort is by far the most diverse. Going after that group would undo years' worth of difficult recruitment, and would push our faculty even farther out of line with our rapidly changing student demographics.

Finally, some senior employees could reframe retrenchment as retirement. I don't know many thirty-year-olds who have that option, and the likelihood of them finding a good academic job in this market, right now, is negligible. The flip side of 'shallow roots' is 'no financial cushion.' These folks have student loans, young children, and housing costs that don't reflect what things cost in the seventies.

All of that said, though, the contract is the contract. So now we get to start looking at the various programs and trying to decide what to throw overboard. There's no obviously correct way to do that.

It would be lovely if we had a program with dying enrollments, high costs, minimal employment and transfer prospects, and a few expensive faculty. But we don't. In this environment, fruit doesn't hang that low for very long before getting picked.

Every program has a constituency. Every adverse employment action will trigger accusations, grievances, lawsuits, and political battles. External groups who have no intention of picking up any of our costs will rake us over the coals for doing what we have to do. I'll get accused of having an 'agenda,' of harboring a secret plan, and of not listening to input. It won't be true, but that won't stop it.
Desperate people will grasp at straws, and give not a whit about collateral damage.

I'm not looking for sympathy. From the perspective of, say, a struggling adjunct, it would be easy to lob the usual grenades at a statement like this. It also wouldn't help.

This Spring won't be easy for anyone who cares about education, or fairness, or the people who will lose their jobs. There are better and worse ways to carry these things out, but at the end of the day, someone is losing a livelihood. There's really no good way to do that.

Is there anyway to offer buyouts for early retirement? I'm not exactly sure how that works, but in my state the K-12 schools have started doing this to encourage older faculty to retire a couple of years early and keep the younger, cheaper labor. I don't know if you have that kind of option with your contract and financial issues though...
In the corporate world, it's the seniors who are let go because they cost the company too much money as opposed to the younger workers. It's a bad situation no matter how it works out for the older or the younger workers. Too bad education institutions and businesses take the easy way out and go with the bottom dollar in mind rather than the competency and merit. But then who'd be holding the bag? Better to hold the bad that has set "rules" than the bag that holds real decision-making.
I've got to second Anonymous's comment. There should be some way to at least offer, if not encourage, voluntary departures from the faculty before you go to involuntary ones. My experience in industry suggests that this might not do much about the quality hit when your experienced people leave, but it can cut down on the carnage among the more recent hires.
Get rid of the OLDER faculty I say I say!!! Who needs 'em anyway?????
While a seniority system certainly isn't perfect, it sure beats whatever's in second place.

If the bottom line is saving as much money as possible, then what would happen to top-of-the-salary-schedule teachers who are productive and competent?

And who gets to decide who's competent and productive? What would the standards be for making such a judgement? Who decides on the standards?

As Dean Dad says, "at the end of the day, someone is losing a livlihood. There's really no good way to do that."

I would not, could not, with a tune.
I could not, would not, with a spoon.
I do not like the baby boom.
Dean Dad, the only way to avoid deep layoffs is to have seen this problem coming and acted a year ago to sweeten the retirement pot. Covering health insurance between now and age 62 might do it for many older faculty, perhaps in exchange for teaching one class. The time to have negotiated that would have been 6 months ago, unless you have a way to reopen the contract because of the financial problem you are in.

Otherwise, my advice is to have a college-wide meeting ASAP in which you spell out the contractual obligations that force you to lay off your newest faculty member, that minority female with a PhD. Do not hesitate to quote them chapter and verse. Put the pressure where it has to be: point out that every senior faculty member who retires this spring will save the jobs of two newly hired faculty.

Regarding age and seniority:

Please note that seniority does not equal age. A newly hired person who is 49 will have less seniority than a person who was hired 15 years ago at age 27 with an MS and a few years of teaching experience.

And, I will add, statistics in my field make it abundantly clear that boomers are under represented in the faculty of universities. The senior faculty in physics departments got their degrees before 1970 and were born before 1940. They are not boomers, but they are retiring. The middle aged faculty, those pushing 50, are from the trailing edge of the boom (like Obama).

The age structure at a CC is often quite different. Few will choose to teach for 40 years like they do at a university with a 1/1 load. At our CC the openings for new faculty (or that were preemptively absorbed to avoid retrenchment) have generally come from retiring boomers with 30+ years of service. Often the only thing keeping people from retiring before age 62 is the lack of affordable health insurance.
A fast observation:

There seem to be a measure of confusion regarding age and health insurance. Medicare doesn't "kick-in" until age 65, not 62. So, if you're laid off at age 62, you have to wait 3 years until you are properly insured. Consequently, any "golden parachute" that fails to continue the same level of health insurance is a non-starter for anyone under the age of 65.

Age 62 is when one can start drawing Social Security....but you still have to wait until age 65 for Medicare.

BTW: You can start drawing on IRAs, I believe at age 59 1/2. You MUST start drawing on IRAs at age 70 1/2.

Those Colleges and Universities without tenure protections also need to take care in retrenching faculty...There are age discrimination laws on the books. Running afoul of these could make retrenchment even MORE expensive.
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