Tuesday, August 16, 2011


No More Spring Scrambles

This year, we're trying something different.

As many a frustrated academic knows, there's a hiring season for full-time faculty. Broadly speaking, it starts in October and runs through about February for tenure-track positions, and starts in January and runs through April or May for one-year positions. (The preferred term for those is usually “visiting,” though that seems a polite fiction at this point.)

Unfortunately, the hiring season doesn't align well with budgets. So we've often had to trail the calendar, looking in the late spring or even early summer for tenure-track positions. At that point, convincing people to relocate is an uphill battle, and many of the candidates who stand out in the early running get snapped up by other places.

Although we've been aware of the issue for years, it has been hard to get ahead of the curve. That's because the budget is fully spoken for, so new positions only become available when current faculty leave. The budget supports x number of full-time faculty. Most of the time, we have x number; the only way to hire is through replacement, even if the replacement isn't necessarily in the same department.

(As awful as that sounds, even that is only possible because we've systematically thinned the ranks of administration. If we hadn't done that, we'd be at x-5 by now.)

The calendar wouldn't be an issue if people submitted retirement letters in September to take effect the following May, and if those letters were irrevocable. But neither is the case. Some people here have submitted retirement letters annually for the last several years, only to revoke them in the winter or early spring. Every time they do that, they reinforce the folly of starting searches when the rest of the world does. Without the funds freed up by their retirement, new hires simply can't happen. But it's politically impossible to make retirement letters irrevocable, and mandatory – and therefore predictable – retirement remains off the table.

Last year a surprising number of people left, some of them waiting until late in the year to give notice. There just wasn't time to put together reasonable searches to replace them.

So this year, we're trying something different. And no, it doesn't involve a visit from the money fairy, who is apparently being held hostage somewhere in the Goldman Sachs building.

Instead of frantically throwing together a search at the last possible minute and hoping for the best, we're carrying openings for a year so we can join the standard search calendar. So someone who quit in May of 2011, say, will be replaced in September of 2012. We'll cover the classes with adjuncts for a year, and use that year to do a search the way it should be done. If we make the offer early enough in the cycle, we might stand a better chance of convincing our first choice candidates to move here, if they need to. (Over the past few years, first choices have been about evenly divided between local and non-local, though many of the non-local first choices wound up turning us down.)

It's not an ideal solution, admittedly. It increases, if slightly, our already uncomfortably high adjunct percentage. But when positions are finite and people can change their minds about leaving until the last minute, the options aren't great. We could do what some colleges do and just plow ahead with searches anyway, canceling them when people rescind their letters, but that tends to leave a bitter taste all around. Not only is it brutally unfair to the candidates, but it also burns out the members of the search committee who conclude, understandably, that their efforts were wasted. Do that a couple of times, and good luck getting people to serve on committees again.

Some places fill the one-year gap with one-year hires, and we've done that intermittently, but the culture doesn't handle it well. No matter how many times you emphasize that it's a one-year appointment, people interpret the non-renewal at the end as being fired. Worse, the culture tends to assume that unless the temporary hire is an axe murderer, she has first dibs on the permanent position. At that point, the integrity of the permanent search is badly compromised.

I'm not thrilled with this solution, but it seems to me the best we can do under the circumstances. If we could make retirement letters irrevocable, we could hire right away, but that's not gonna happen. If mandatory retirement returned, then we wouldn't even need letters; we'd just know, and we could move forward. If the money fairy paid a visit, we could chance the occasional double coverage and call it good. And if the culture didn't have such a strong belief in 'dibs,' we could at least patch with short-term hires. But at least this way we'll have a shot at the very best people for these jobs, which is, after all, the point. No more spring scrambles; this year, we do it right.

This isn't quite the focus of your post, but the "dibs culture" that's the awkward consequence of using adjuncts to recalibrate hiring to the budget cycle is worth thinking about. Here in Australia much has been done to insist to hard working adjuncts and short-term contract staff that "you have no dibs on the substantive position, if we ever manage to create it". Maybe this is a good thing, especially as you say in terms of the integrity of the recruiting process. But we rarely expect the reverse to be true--for adjuncts to say "And you have no dibs on me." Especially when it comes to last minute hires, hires that ask adjuncts to start teaching while the contract's being prepared, etc. So I think perhaps we need to expect that the "dibs" bargain could be struck (and struck out) both ways.
Decades ago, in mid-August I was offered a one-year temporary position at a community college where I'd taught one class the previous spring semester for the first time.

I'd been about to move to take a nonacademic position in another city that I didn't particularly want to go to, so I was very happy to accept the last-minute full-time temporary position.

There were two others like me in my temporary position. Two full-time openings came up later in the academic year; the other two temporaries applied while I did not. One was hired for one of the two positions. The other left, angry he didn't get the position.

Unexpectedly that summer, I was offered a second year of full-time temporary work. I had nothing else to do, so I was happy to take it. They hired five other full-time temporaries.

In the winter, four full-time permanent positions opened; everyone else of the temporaries applied for the position; I didn't. Only one of them got one of the new permanent positions; the others, some of whom of the new hires weren't even granted interviews.

It was a very angry and stressful time in the apartment. I just kept my head down and did my work and expected to move on the next year.

Guess who was the only one of the temporaries rehired for another temporary full-time position the next year? The chair of another department told me, "They respect you because you don't want to work here forever!"

I was eager to leave after that third year, but over the next 15 years, I took three more temporary full-time positions with the community college, never applying for a permanent position.

Some people make ideal one-year positions. I have taken several at other colleges, and I love one-year positions. I have no dependents, few expenses, and another career with which I can make money apart from teaching.
For someone leaving in the spring, why couldn't a new candidate begin in January rather than the following September? I started in January and I was grateful that the hiring wasn't delayed 8 months. (I wasn't an adjunct at my school, but I was happy to begin my new job sooner than otherwise would have happened.) I will say that starting mid-year does muck with a few contract issues, since our contracts are written for the traditional start date, but overall, it's been fine.
"It's not an ideal solution, admittedly. It increases, if slightly, our already uncomfortably high adjunct percentage."

Honestly, as someone whose terror at the 'adjunctification' of American higher ed sometimes clouds his judgement, I can still say quite comfortably: this is exactly what adjunct positions are for. Just don't let anyone convince you to keep the temporary adjuncts semi-permanently.
Tangentially related question: when is the "hiring season" for adjuncts? I'm a CC adjunct and would like to pick up a class or two at a local 4-year. Is there a window of time that will increase my chances of getting said gig?
Dean Dad has correctly identified the problem here as “the culture.” However, this problem does not include, as he likes to lament, some force of nature known as a money problem. People create budgets, and budgets can be, and regularly are, shaped and controlled by people informed by cultural attitudes which, unlike tornadoes and hurricanes, can be changed (much like attitudes toward women and minorities have changed substantially for the better).

The first offensive cultural assumption at work here is that no currently serving adjunct or “visiting” lecturer could possibly be qualified for a tenure-track position teaching exactly the same courses that adjuncts already teach and doing additional work that adjuncts more than likely already do for no pay. The idea that only an (expensive) national search can produce the best faculty needs to be debunked once and for all.

The second offensive cultural assumption at work here is that it is just fine to continue to mislead students and the public about the nature of the faculty at this institution. No doubt marketing materials and admissions counselors celebrate the faculty to the public, crowing that they are “excellent” and “highly qualified” -- and neglect to mention that more than half of these faculty are paid less than the average fast food worker and likely not given any of the support that full-time faculty receive (and that the exact same tuition amounts are supposed to guarantee to the students of all faculty). As the parent of soon-to-be community college students, if I were considering Dean Dad’s institution this post would make me hightail it elsewhere, since it is clear that the administration is contemptuous of the majority of its faculty and by extension, of its students and those paying the bills.

This post is a classic example of the elitism that has created the adjunct hiring system, and an excellent illustration of what it will take to dismantle it: integrity and leadership. I think Dean Dad possesses these qualities --he’s certainly smart enough and his heart often seems in the right place, but his posts are too often imbued with a troubling defeatism and willingness to accept the status quo.
--Adjunct Mom
First, our college has long had a policy of budgeting in a way that allows us to know, at the start of the fiscal year, that we have the resources to hire additional or replacement faculty. Everything else has as its goal that we hire as early as possible in the spring. That means that a surprise May retirement will likely not be filled until the next fall, but a December retirement might be filled that coming fall as part of an existing search.

This may be easier for us if, as you seem to suggest, we have a lot more full time faculty than you do. One predictable opening of a highly paid senior professor can come close to covering the cost of two new hires, one of which anticipates a future need.

Second, we have a contractual process that makes retirement dates definite, although only in the sense of "on or before". (I think someone could still retire in the middle of the semester if they wanted to, just as they can die or become terminally hospitalized in the middle of a semester.) This greatly facilitates planning for the reasons you note.

Finally, you don't say how you schedule those people who give you last minute notice in the spring that they actually won't retire in the fall. In our system they would get last dibs, probably consisting of a mix of 7:30 AM and late afternoon or evening classes because their favorite time slots would have been assigned to returning faculty, including overloads, or even long-term adjuncts, for both fall and next spring.
Anonymous @7:28AM needs to read more carefully. At no time has Dean Dad ever said that most adjuncts at DDCC are not qualified for full time positions. The issue is whether simply being at that particular CC makes up for being ranked below someone who either (a) has been at the same CC for fewer years or (b) has taught longer and with more distinction at some other school.

It is a fact that some adjuncts don't make it past their first semester. You don't know what you are going to get when you hire someone who may have never been in a classroom before. However, it is also a fact that some of our young and very capable adjuncts take jobs at a 4-year school after earning their PhD, while others have chosen to work part time after retirement or while holding a regular job.

Finally, the biggest cultural influence on our college is called the Legislature. They get more than what they pay for and then complain about it. (One specific example: A nearby university gets much more from the state per freshman student for the same class taught by the same adjunct at my CC.)
I'm a little surprised that putting the hire off until the next spring is better for the budget season. In certain states (CA comes to mind), the state budget tends to be finalized so late in the spring or even summer that even if you wanted to do a traditional early spring hire for the following fall, most CCs do not feel comfortable doing so. I've seen multiple conditional offers in late May that are waiting for a final budget approval in late June. Under these conditions, replacing a retirement announced in April or early May is entirely possible if a little rushed.
Maybe it's because I'm staff and we hire people when we need to hire them. Maybe it's because I've only ever worked at non-union shops and non-tenure shops. But there has to be an easier way. Waiting for the "season" seems to create other problems. You know the budget cycle isn't going to change to change your hiring cycle. Someone has to go first.

And because many former colleagues are adjunct, it seems like they are really getting dumped on. Instead of wasting money on a national search, hire one of the great people who you already know.
At my college the traditional peak of the tenure-track hiring system is March (no kidding): Advertise the position in January, screen applications in February, and interview finalists in March. The top interviewees then go to interviews with the president, who typically selects the new faculty member within a week or two of the interview. We're often in April by then.

Unfortunately, the above is our ideal scenario. We've also done interviews in April and May. The applicant pool gets thinned out rather dramatically when you wait too long.

The interview process is similar for full-time temporary positions, which may be one-semester or full-year appointments. However, we cannot keep giving people one-year temp contracts, one after the other. It's not allowed. Only part-time adjuncts can continue from year to year. There's a priority system that gives an edge to experienced adjuncts in their assignments. Experienced adjuncts are also routinely included in the interview pool for full-time tenure-track appointments (if they want to be considered for same). I and several of my colleagues came to our tenured positions via the adjunct route.

Additions to the adjunct pool for part-time instructors is much more informal. People can apply at any time, year round. The dean and dept chair meet with the applicant for a short interview, verify qualifications, and add the successful candidate to the "as needed" list. When you get picked for an unstaffed class, you start accumulating adjunct experience and seniority.
@Anonymous: have you considered that it's possibly due to the fact that Community College work is done in chunks called "semesters"? Are you really advocating that CCs should have no trouble at all filling a class a third of the way through? Whether or not it was taught for the first third?
I keep wondering why so few question the elephant in the room; what valid justification could there be for a hiring process to take MONTHS from start to finish? In industry, 6-figure jobs are regularly filled less than a month after listing them with exceptionally qualified candidates.

It seems to me that this hiring model is an expensive, unnecessary relic. I agree with the others here that a broad search is unjustified if you have satisfactory local adjuncts who know the system, teach well, and want the job.

Might you get someone SLIGHTLY better if you look around? Maybe. Maybe not. Then again you might get someone who leaves 6 months later. Or who turns out to be difficult to work with. Or a lousy teacher. You just don't know. On what grounds can you justify spending insane amounts of money to hire that person when the adjunct who has faithfully shown up for class for 5 years and mentored students on their own time has the credentials and wants the job?

We talk about budget problems in higher ed, and they are very real. But this one we appear to be making ourselves through an outdated, expensive and time-consuming hiring model. It might (and I'm skeptical) be justified in an R1 where you are seeking an expert in some obscure research area, but it hardly is called for when looking for someone to teach psy101.
In industry, 6-figure jobs are regularly filled less than a month after listing them with exceptionally qualified candidates.
What industries? When I was applying for biotech jobs two months was not out of the ordinary and that was for a bacherlor's level position. My friends who have PhDs and went into industry had hiring timelines that were 2 to 3 months. Their interviews were similar to ones found in academia. They had day or two-day long interviews where they had to give a seminar.
I've noticed that the length of the hiring process tends to closely match how long the institution expects to keep you around. So if you get hired in twenty minutes, either you're an absolute superstar, or you'd better be pretty adept at office politics...
@DRD 9:57 AM

The comment area isn't really the place to explain the concept of a "vacant line", but I will try.

Suppose Prof A leaves in May 2011 and that line becomes vacant. No one in their right mind will start a search in May. Some of those funds [*] are used to hire either a group of adjuncts or a 1-year replacement, with excess stored for a rainy day, because it is too late to do a reasonable search. You decide to keep that line in the current area or move it to another as part of the final budget process circa July 2011. You then advertise the position in September, do the search, hire in February 2012, and put that person to work in September 2012. In some cases, that person might move early and teach as an adjunct during the summer of 2012. There is no financial reason to be uncomfortable with this process, only that the number of full-timer sections will decrease from an already unacceptable level.

The process takes time because we have to advertise in a way that gets us a good pool of candidates and keeps the EEOC happy. We then have to read dozens (if not hundreds) of applications once HR allows us to see them, and schedule interviews for the top candidates. At my CC, it is not expensive except in "service" time, but the time taken away from our students is a good reason to avoid doing a pointless search, as DD pointed out.

[*] May your Deity of Choice watch over you if each tenure-track line is controlled by the Legislature as they open up.
It may not be the case at all institutions but part of our EEOC and accreditation rules outline the process of hiring a full-time person. The rules include having a candidate POOL (meaning more than one). It is necessary to go through the expensive, long process because we don't have a nice deep pool of qualified candidates locally. The adjunct might be terrific but we can't justify the hiring of said person unless she is terrific within a pool of candidates.
I am not too familiar with a academic hiring, but it seems to me from taking community college classes that the adjuncts and part timers are vastly better than the full time faculty. Wouldn't it be possible to fill all the positions with employees who are not tenure track. In particular technical classes need to be taught by someone who is up to the latest in technical areas. My classes with professors who had been around forever was that they were REALLY out of date. Why not just hire everyone on an annual basis. Keep them if they are good, let them go if they aren't. Isn't this the way all jobs work? Also, why do a national search for a person to teach algebra!? Good grief, the local community college did that. What planet do they live on?
I think everybody ought to browse on it.
This can't actually work, I suppose like this.
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