Thursday, February 18, 2010
I've seen it done in a few ways, and I have my own preference, but I've never actually seen alternatives spelled out systematically.
The most common way that I've seen has been as a sort of spoils system for gladiatorial combat among administrators. Each dean curries favor with the VP over time, and when hiring time rolls around, positions are allocated in rough proportion to the political standing of the deans.
I'm not a fan of that system, for what should be obvious reasons. It's arbitrary, it has nothing to do with teaching or staffing needs, and it redirects employee energy away from the core business at hand and towards internal politicking. Yet it survives, probably because it satisfies the egos of some powerful people. Not for me, thanks.
The second most common way is historical. In relatively flush times, this means one-for-one replacements; in leaner times, it means a de facto "take a number" system. (I suppose this wouldn't work during expansionary times, but I've never seen expansionary times, so the point is pretty abstract. Maybe someday...) This doesn't seem like any kind of improvement to me, since at its base, it's still arbitrary. Who's to say that the historical allocation is still the best? Even if it made sense when it was established -- a big 'if,' to be sure -- circumstances change over time. Worse, it gives rise to a sense of entitlement at the department level, which adds an unnecessary layer of conflict when the needs of the college have changed over time. "They took away our position." No, the college put it where it was more needed. It was never 'yours.' But good luck making that distinction when it has been the de facto standard for years.
It's also possible to allocate positions 'strategically,' which in management speak usually means deciding what the next 'hot' area will be and pouring resources into it. The argument for this 'picking winners' approach is that a college can build up a given area pretty quickly, even without a lot of money. The downsides are several. It starves out other areas, it rolls the dice on a single judgment call, and in practice it usually dovetails with method 1.
I've heard, too, of colleges using something like quotas, and calling it 'evidence-based.' The idea would be to set numerical parameters -- a given ft/adjunct ratio, say -- and use new positions to get outlying areas into compliance with the parameters.
This method strikes me as less objectionable, since it reduces the relevance of the courtier and actually refers to conditions on the ground. But it's still a blunt instrument. On the faculty side, adjuncts are easier to find in some fields than others, particularly during the day. Ignoring that reality will lead to some very unfortunate results in short order. Some fields -- music, foreign languages -- will always have relatively high adjunct percentages, just because the subject matter is spread over so many subfields (instruments or languages). You wouldn't add up single sections of Japanese, Russian, and Arabic and combine them into one position. And some fields have stringent external accreditation requirements that essentially take the choice out of your hands.
This method also falls apart when comparing unlike jobs. Given enough funding for one position, what's the basis for comparing a financial aid application processor, a reference librarian, and a biologist? There's no obvious common denominator.
My personal preference is a hybrid evidence-based/star-chamber method. Have a meeting in which the deans make arguments using the same criteria, then have a vote. Having to make arguments with reference to given criteria can smoke out the weaker claims, and a vote reduces the chances of any one person's arbitrary whims mattering. It's still flawed, though, to the extent that criteria are blunt instruments and that voting can fall prey to logrolling, wheeling/dealing, and the like.
Wise and worldly readers, I'm wondering if you've seen (or imagined) a more successful way to allocate positions. Any great ideas floating around out there?
I would prefer some set of objective criteria, such as faculty productivity. We had a 20% increase in Freshmen enrollment this year, yet we had no additional English faculty. Not surprisingly, gen ed and remedial English class sizes ballooned and will likely continue to be a problem unless we hire additional English faculty. Will we this year? We have no idea yet.
In another case, we have 9 sections of a gen ed course with 100% of the sections taught by adjuncts. It is a class that lends itself to being taught by adjuncts, but 9 sections would seem to merit a faculty line.
Maybe it actually is more objective than I think. Perhaps what we really need first is simple transparency.
The staffing committee meets in June before the fall during which the search will commence. Normally after a couple of meetings, it is able to make a recommendation to the VPAA. Historically, the VPAA has largely abided by those recommendations.
Lots of advantages to this, with legitimacy being number one. It's colleagues deciding not a unilateral dean's decision. The possibilities for old-boy behavior and other forms of rent-seeking are lessened. Having a standardized form makes requests more easily comparable and forces departments to actually present evidence and do homework as to why this position is needed. (This committee does visiting requests too.)
We've been doing this for about 6 or 7 years and it's worked well.
There's a certain amount of historical basis. Retiring faculty aren't guaranteed to be replaced, but generally seem to be.
In the recent past, there's been some of the developing hot areas approach. For hot areas, though, it's been less about what areas are going to be big nationally in the future than about what aspects of the local economy and geography can we capitalize on to carve out our own niche.
Currently, we're hiring a new position in our department because we've had disproportionate growth both in our majors and in our introductory course enrollment, relative to the rest of the university. Our department chair brought the growth numbers to the dean, and he gave us an extra position. Hopefully that won't fall through... the economy still leaves things uncertain.
We handle past history fairly well. For example, Computer Science has been circling the drain for about a decade now. I think we had 6 FT and 6 PT instructors in 1990, now our single FT instructor is gone, leaving nothing but 4 adjuncts. Those FT positions were re-allocated to areas that had greater need, which is a good thing, or else we would have a bunch of Computer Science faculty sitting around twiddling their thumbs. It will be interesting to see if Computer Science is near the top of our list next year. I suspect it will, as you need to have at least one FT person, otherwise you really don't have a department anymore.
A campus-wide faculty committee ranks requests to fill positions.
The Dean's Council (a/k/a the Academic Council and some other names over the years) also ranks the requests to fill positions.
Both are supposed to use the same criteria, of which there is a fairly substantial list (and, in fact, historically their rankings were quite similar).
The lists are reconclied through discussion and (sometimes) a final decision by the chief academic officer.
Once we know the budget our chief academic simply goes down the list until we run out of money.
It's worked sometimes.
We're now moving to another system, called "Responsibility Centered Management," in which program administrators (deans, for the academic programs) have more control over their budgets and in which revenues more-of-less flow to the unit that generates the revenues. (Any unex[ended surpluses are supposed to remain with a program.) Then, if you think you can support a new position from revenues you will generate, it's yours. Conversely, when the revenues you generate begin to fall, you have to decide how to cope (at the program level).
There are issues, but this is long enough.
Then the Budget Committee (all administrators) makes the final decision on allocating positions. It's sometimes gone our way (we got a brand new position two years ago after years of maintaining a 25% rise in enrolment) and other times hasn't (when the only accredited faculty member in a specific sub-field is retiring and still no word about a replacement).
Our university also seems to practice "Just Past Time" decision-making on hiring. Whereas other universities will say "look ahead to what you need next year" and make decisions for job openings for next fall, ours asks us to submit job ads for positions that won't even be considered as possible by the various committees until some point in the late winter. Sometimes they let us advertise while that consideration is ongoing. Sometimes not. So we can get a term or t-t advertisement approved very late in the hiring cycle despite the department identifying the need more than a year earlier!
Well, that's how it has worked historically. Today the budget situation is so terrible that it's not clear when we'll be able to hire again, so it may all be moot.