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...

Regarding the lack of substantive arguments for tenure track hires rather than more adjuncts- I think you're missing some of the basic ones. For example, adjuncts often don't do advising of students; they don't participate in committee work either at the department or university level, and they often aren't around as much as regular faculty, simply due to the logistics of their jobs, making collaborations and informal mentoring with students very difficult. So there is more than just a moral argument here- the practical result is that more work is added to the regular faculty, although often in hidden ways/costs.
Wow, as someone who is on the market right now, I just felt dumped on to the styrofoam tray, but with this post the shrink-wrap has gone on and I can't breath! Help, help, the meat is rotting...
This year seems to be much better than last year, in my field. I applied for 2 jobs and both had over 400 applicants. I don't think there is any "logic" to the market, there are good jobs and many, many qualified people out there.
Your argument makes some sense, which is actually why people will probably not do what you suggest. There is also the simple factor of money, which is why we have adjuncts in the first place. Plus, if the trend of class cuts continues, more full-timers limit flexibility. As a part-timer, I wish that schools would take your advice. Although, as you also pointed out, my odds are not looking good due to competition. Maybe I can get rich blogging.
An observation:
"The idea is that tenure-track lines don't always get renewed when vacated,..." says something about your budget planning process if your perceived needs for faculty change that much in such a short time.

On your main point, you will get those results if you manage to get teaching oriented candidates in your door. A friend who came here ABD told me she ditched that effort once she realized she was making more than her friends in the same Evergreen field at 4-year regional universities while teaching a similar number of students ... and without the need to get a book contract.
What flight risk? Outside of the most outstanding scholars, who will bring grant support wherever they go, no full-time faculty are going to be able to move. The only risk to recruiting the most qualified candidates in an applicant pool is that they'll land higher and you'll have a failed search.
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