Wednesday, January 20, 2010

 

Rights of Return

I just got an email from a reader who has tenure at hir current college, but is considering a deanship at another college which will not bring tenure with it. S/he asked about the absence of a right of return to faculty in an administrative role.

Regular readers know I'm not a fan of tenure. At its base, the objection is ethical: I don't believe that anybody should be unaccountable for performance. (And spare me the flaming based on hair-splitting. In the real world, tenure raises the cost of accountability to such comical heights that it's effectively prohibitive.) However, I'm also enough of a realist to know that a systemic shift to something more defensible would have to come from the outside, so I don't address the issue locally. There's nothing to be gained by doing that, so I don't. I'd probably be run out of town on a rail -- this in the name of academic freedom, ironically enough -- and it couldn't work one college at a time. In the meantime, I make periodic arguments on the blog for a long-term renewable contract system and hope for the best. But while I concede the political argument, I remain utterly unpersuaded on the ethics.

The ethical objection is far worse when the faculty have tenure and administrators don't. At that point, the lack of accountability on one side easily becomes a weapon against the other. The structural incentive to sabotage anything unpopular by simple foot-dragging is so powerful that it would be surprising if it didn't happen. Anybody who has watched department meetings knows that academics are incredibly good at foot-dragging. And anybody who says that sabotage-by-foot-dragging never happens simply doesn't know what s/he's talking about. It does. It defined several years of my career.

So there's a conundrum. On the one hand, simple reciprocity demands that if faculty have job security, administrators should, too. Fair is fair. On the other, guaranteeing a right of return could lead to some very weird staffing imbalances over time, and could put people in classes they haven't taught in years. Failed Administrators Returning to Teaching -- FARTs -- may or may not be the best candidates for open teaching gigs; when they aren't, the students suffer. And job security in administrative roles as administrative roles -- not a right of return, but a deanship for life -- is such an obviously bad idea that I sometimes wonder why people don't draw the obvious inferences.

My preferred solution -- contracts for all -- cuts the Gordian knot cleanly and elegantly, but most campuses aren't quite ready for that yet. So the conundrum persists.

In my experience, many of the people who protest the loudest against administrative salaries also protest the loudest against rights of return, and they don't notice the contradiction. If moving into administration requires giving up tenure, and tenure has economic value, then it's perfectly reasonable to expect to be compensated for its loss. If you don't compensate for the loss, I'd expect to see very few people give it up. (When I propose a contract system for faculty, tenured bloggers apply this point to themselves very quickly.) So my short answer is, if you have to give up tenure to get the deanship, get a salary that makes the loss worthwhile. If someone carps about "bloated administrative salaries," ask how much they'd charge to give up tenure themselves.

(There is another option, of course: stop drawing administrators from faculty ranks altogether. Set up a completely separate career track, and have people choose one or the other at the outset. I'd argue that this option is completely insane, since it would lead to decisions that are completely out of touch with the classroom, but it's at least conceptually possible.)

So no, I don't have a solution that's both clean and politically possible. Good luck with your decision, though. These things would be a lot easier if the system were more rational.

Comments:
Without a right of return, the problem of recruiting administrators from the ranks of faculty would only get worse -- or, the only faculty who would make the leap are those you don't want in administration, as they're burned-out.

On the other hand, it seems pretty absurd to effectively hold a spot open for someone who spends 20 years as an administrator. Perhaps the "right of return" could expire in 5 or 10 years. Long enough for the faculty member to have a good idea about whether or not they want to stay in administration, but short enough that the faculty member's skills won't be hopelessly outdated.
 
You slay me! Quite a few universities grant tenure to their new President who, after an average of 5 or 6 years, comes back as a FART. One that might never have taught at a university, or not in a long time.

But "right of return" to a DIFFERENT school? Bizarre. I've only seen that where someone takes a one year unpaid leave of absence to try out a major job shift. I've also seen that sort of leave request denied.
 
The ethical objection is far worse when the faculty have tenure and administrators don't. At that point, the lack of accountability on one side easily becomes a weapon against the other.

I'm coming from a situation where our CAO is a Napoleonic little tyrant, and even the full professors live in fear of his vindictiveness. So I don't really see this, and I certainly don't feel pity for the poor administrators who have no recourse against the power of the mean old tenured faculty. But maybe things are different at your CC?
 
Well sure, the tenure system as currently applied raises some difficult issues with regard to accountability, but given that it exists, having the Right of Return has been a huge comfort for me.

Half the admins at my CC were hired from the outside and have no ROR. The other half have ROR and some have taken advantage of it (some not willingly), and the results are mixed. The good teachers are still good teachers, once the rust wears off. Most of them have been given a period of time to refresh their knowledge and skills - I would advocate that for someone who has been out of teaching for more than a couple of years.

Things are getting very dicey for me lately, between squabbling faculty, budget cuts and an unsupportive (the nicest adjective I could summon) VPI - so it is indeed comforting to know I have that ROR in my back pocket. I teach a course now and then, so I don't feel way out of touch, but it has been 10 years since I taught full time.

At the rate things are going, I may be an old FART pretty darn soon. That would be OK, but I feel badly for some of my colleagues who don't have that option and know that the outlook for job seekers is pretty bleak.

Like many admins, my one-year contract states that the college give me 30 days notice of termination, with no need to state the reason. Given that I make about $12K more than a senior faculty member who works during the summer, I'm thinking that is not enough of a premium to give up tenure for 30 days' notice.
 
For the person who asked the question, I would request a 2 year leave of absence from the current position so that you have ROR somewhere. Most department chairs will grant that - the usual argument against it - we can't leave a position unfilled for that long doesn't fly now. No one is justifying positions at my uni, even when people leave.
 
Failed Administrators Returning to Teaching -- FARTs

AHAHAHAHAH! Fucking brilliant, holmes!!!!
 
I'm honestly kind of surprised at DD's continued militance against tenure, given that he seems to have found ways to make a system with tenure function reasonably well, but never found a way to make a system without tenure that he participated in function reasonably well.

It made sense earlier, when DD wasn't getting anywhere. But it feels more like an unexamined assumption now. And, much like unexamined assumptions, it comes up in weird places, like with respect to adjuncting.
 
Out here in California at least, administrators are able to form their own unions. And they don't have to be meet-and-confer pushovers, either. If job security is a problem for deans, then organize!

--Philip
 
Simple answer: don't take it.
Longer answer: I suppose you might consider it if a) you get 2x your current salary or b) you have a right of return to your current institution (say for 1 or 2 years).
 
IPF writes: "On the other hand, it seems pretty absurd to effectively hold a spot open for someone who spends 20 years as an administrator. Perhaps the "right of return" could expire in 5 or 10 years. Long enough for the faculty member to have a good idea about whether or not they want to stay in administration, but short enough that the faculty member's skills won't be hopelessly outdated."

I don't know if there is an actual *policy* at my institution about this, but I know that the above is exactly what happened when two different members of my department moved into admin positions. They held the admin positions for a certain length of time, and then our department filled the lines with new hires. It really wasn't a big deal.

I'm at a 4-year, not a CC, but our administrators in positions with academic oversight both have tenure (they really have to in order to be able to wrangle the faculty) AND they get a larger salary. (I'm talking about Deans of colleges here, as well as assistant deans, as well as the provost and the president.) While it's true that this may produce FARTs (and I laughed at that, too), those administrators who have returned to faculty ranks in my experience have left the faculty within no more than 2 years - either through retirement or through other job offers. At the end of the day, if they saw their careers going in an administrative direction, reverting to a 4-4 load was not a realistic long-term option for the quality of life to which they'd become accustomed as administrators (both in terms of wages and in terms of workload).

Not sure how this works into the matrix of DD's ethical position, but this is my experience.
 
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