Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Countercyclical Hiring and Flight Risk

Too many of the arguments I've read and heard for hiring more full-time faculty rely on moralistic appeals. The idea seems to boil down to a simpleminded equation of "market" with "bad" and "tradition" with "good."

Moralistic arguments don't work because they solve the wrong problem. But there's a perfectly reasonable market-based argument for hiring full-time faculty right now: buy low, sell high. Great people have never been as undervalued as they are now; this is an unprecedented hiring opportunity.

In normal times, good candidates sometimes get passed over for posing excessive 'flight risk.' The idea is that tenure-track lines don't always get renewed when vacated, so you don't want to waste one on someone who will up and leave in a couple of years. (What this says about the idea of 'market as meritocracy' I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Search costs are substantial, and the risk of losing the position to the next round of budget cuts is ever-present, so some places will decide strategically to go for the very-good-but-not-best candidate on the theory that he'll stay if he gets the job. After all, if he leaves, the position may just get adjuncted out.

When the market is so completely dead, though, the candidate pool gets even stronger, and flight risk diminishes substantially. After all, if nobody else is hiring, where else is the slumming superstar going to go?

I've seen this on my own campus. We haven't been able to hire much lately, but we have hired for a few scattered positions, and the candidate pools have been off-the-charts amazing. The few new folks we've brought on recently have been absurdly great. I've actually used this as justification to reallocate resources to hiring more faculty, since now we'd have a realistic shot at people who normally would have been gobbled up elsewhere. While the moral argument is constant, the market-opportunity argument is uniquely strong now. If you hire when everyone else does, you're in a war for talent. If you hire when nobody else does, talent is in a war for you. Leaving morality out of it, the time when nobody else is hiring is exactly the time to strike.

Obviously, well-endowed private colleges have an advantage here. If your college is struggling to meet the payroll it already has, then the argument for countercyclical hiring is of no more than theoretical interest. But if there's any wiggle room at all, this is the time to use it.

Come to think of it, if more people figure out this strategy, it won't work as well. Humph. Never mind; as you were, everyone. Move along. Nothing to see here...