Thursday, February 18, 2010


Allocating Positions

It may seem weird for me to ask this now, after all these years, but how does your college allocate positions?

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?

At our small directional state college, we have department chairs submit requests (always slightly padded, of course) and then the President simply decides with some input from the Provost. Since they may only fund 10% of the requests and since the President sometimes has their own pet projects, the system seems a bit arbitrary. Oh, and nobody finds out about new lines until after the Fall schedule is set.

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.
SLAC here. We have a staffing committee comprised of faculty drawn from a couple of standing elected committees, some faculty at large, some academic affairs associate deans (also faculty) and the VPAA/dean. That committee reviews staffing requests submitted by department chairs. Those requests must address a list of 6 or 8 questions so that they are standardized across departments. Those questions include things such as class size, participation in interdisciplinary programs, a rationale for the fields being hired, etc. All open tenure-tracks are up for grabs. If your dept has a retirement, that line could go elsewhere if someone else makes a better case for it.

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.
I'm new enough to my job (Asst. Prof. at a primarily undergraduate state school with a significant number of masters students and 2 PhD programs) that I may not actually have the right impression of how things work yet, but here goes...

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.
I think we do this pretty well at my CC. Each year, the Deans bring forward all of their full-time faculty requests and we put them up on a board and ask for the justification for each position. We talk about FT/PT ratio, degree of difficulty of finding adjuncts in that discipline, available funding, open positions, etc. Then, we rank all the positions and start trying to figure out how many can be funded, based on resignations, retirements, new funding sources, or the state budget allocation. When we walk out of that room, there is a pretty good consensus over which positions should be hired first, and there are generally no hard feelings. For example, English has one of the lowest FT/PT ratio, but it is quite easy to find a good adjunct instructor (as all readers of this blog know only too well). So, English always gets a highly-ranked position, but never the top slot.

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.
This is the easiest question you've ever posed to your readers. At my ag-and-engineering research university, the departments that bring in huge grants get to hire all they want. The humanities, arts, and social sciences will apparently never be allowed to hire again. Problem solved!
Historically, vacant positions got placed in a campus-wide pool and then allocated using a faily complicated process that works something like this:

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.
Here at my regional comprehensive, the process is a bit arcane. It begins with requests from departments to deans, who then create their own priority list. Those lists are presented to the Academic Planning Committee (comprised of faculty and administrators) that recommends to the Budget Committee a campus-wide ranking with "must-haves" to keep accreditation, etc., otherwise noted.

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!
My R1 university has a useful feature: the administration has set for every department a "target staffing rate", with a target number of full-time faculty. In practice this tends to be an upper bound, and the actual number at any point in time may be less, but the goal is that over time the intent is to convert towards that target. These targets are adjusted on a relatively infrequent basis, and they form one important input into the allocation process: departments whose current staffing level is significantly below their target have a much stronger case for getting new positions.

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.
We have a number of criteria that are presented to the dean and higher admins to justify hires. We can't use replacement as justification for hiring but we have something called an 80/20 ratio that we are supposed to maintain - where 80% of our faculty are tenured/tenure track and 20% are lecturers. When the department teaching load increases, the 80/20 ratio shifts and you can justify a hire. The overall university "80/20" is actually 50/50 right now so we are way behind in terms of these criteria but in theory, that's how it works.
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