Wednesday, May 14, 2014

 

How It Is Not Done


As one of the few academic administrators who blogs, I frequently find myself trying to shed light on how an administrative move that may seem strange or silly from the outside actually makes sense from the inside.  My goal in doing that is to clear away useless myths to make possible a more intelligent and useful discussion as a sector about the challenges we all face, and how best to handle them.

And then there’s Quinnipiac.  

Quinnipiac ordered its deans to come up with sixteen faculty layoffs in two days, at the same time that it’s doing searches for a dozen new faculty in different areas.  Broadly speaking, the cuts are mostly in the liberal arts, and the growth is mostly in professional areas.

I won’t address the shift of academic focus.  Sometimes that has to happen, and I’m capable of believing that a strategic shift may make sense.  

But this is not how you do it.  As an academic administrator, I’m embarrassed.  

This is the kind of hamfisted, capricious, secretive approach that feeds every hateful myth.  It will set back useful discussion for years.  

A shift of strategic focus isn’t something you pull off in a week.  It’s something that unfolds over time, with public discussion and probably some drama.  I’m not opposed to a college picking winners and losers -- you can’t do a resource shift without the resources coming from someone -- and it’s to be expected that the losers will not go quietly into that good night.  The pushback can get ugly; that’s part of the process.  

But you don’t short-circuit the process like that and expect good things to happen.  

I have been a dean who had to evaluate people for layoffs.  When I was at DeVry, I personally had to lay off a productive person whose only crime was being the last hired.  This is not a theoretical issue. There is a way to do it.  This is not it.

The first thing you do, after assessing the situation and determining that layoffs are fiscally necessary, is come up with decision rules and processes.  (I’ll leave aside the “fiscal exigency” issue, since it appears at first blush that none of the Quinnipiac layoffs were of people who had tenure.  I’m open to correction on this.)  What criteria will you use?  How will you document your decisions?  If someone challenges you in court based on protected class membership in something, how will you defend yourself?  Hint: it’s much easier if you can show that you applied rational criteria fairly and thoughtfully.  That presumes the existence of criteria.

And you bundle different ranks together.  As awful as faculty layoffs are, they’re somewhat less awful when they’re part of a larger package that also includes staff and administration.  One of my prouder moments at HCC came in 2009-10 when the wheels came off the state budget, and we had to do abrupt and severe cuts on campus.  I chose to reduce the number of deans to maintain the faculty at full strength.  In my estimation, it was the way to do the least harm, and to show in concrete terms that I take the importance of full-time faculty seriously.  People remember that sort of thing.

Singling out faculty to take all of the cuts leaves a bitter, bitter taste.  

Layoffs and shared governance don’t go together well, since nobody will vote themselves off the island.  But some basic level of transparency is essential if you want to maintain a sense in the larger faculty that you aren’t just making decisions based on personal likes, or political connections, or whatever racial/gender/demographic category seems to stick out.  

I would be shocked if these weren’t challenged legally.  The circumstances practically demand it.

Upon challenge, Quinnipiac will probably have to backtrack and/or pay significant compensation, on top of whatever legal fees it will face.  This is the price of thoughtless haste.  

If I were to put on my Machiavellian hat, I would guess that the shortened timeframe was chosen specifically to deprive any on-campus opposition of oxygen.  By the time folks have processed the information, the thinking goes, it would be a fait accompli.  But that assumes that the end of the academic year is the end of the issue.  It isn’t.  Courts don’t care at all about the academic calendar.  Legal challenges can drag on for years, generating billable hours and adverse publicity all the while.

Administrators have to balance budgets, handle personnel issues, and sometimes be the bad guys.  That comes with the gig.  But how you do those things matters.  Acting so arbitrarily conveys a strong impression that the decisions themselves were arbitrary.  People remember that sort of thing, too.

My free advice to my counterparts at Quinnipiac: roll it back.  Admit that you overshot, and put together a serious process on campus to make strategic decisions next year.  Either that, or get some very, very good lawyers.

Comments:
Layoffs and downsizings are never pleasant to do. But they are an important part of just about any administrative job. I don’t envy anyone who has to lay off employees, and after the deed is done the administrator responsible must suffer through a couple of sleepless nights.

One advantage of being in a union environment is that the means by which layoffs are handled are usually dictated by the union contract. The criterion for deciding who gets laid off is usually seniority, with the most recently hired being the first to be let go. At least there is something in writing which dictates how the layoffs are to be done, which prevents the employer from being sued.

If there is no pre-established procedure in writing about how to handle layoffs, the whole process can appear to be capricious and arbitrary and there is a danger of a boatload of lawsuits coming from employees suddenly being thrown out on the street to face an utterly miserable job market.

There are some corporate managements that have a “rank-and-yank” philosophy, in which no matter how well the company is doing financially, those employees who are ranked at the bottom in the annual performance review are let go every year. This supposedly encourages the survivors to put their shoulders to the wheel even more vigorously, lest they be hit in the next cycle of layoffs. I think that General Electric pioneered in this sort of strategy. But this encourages an environment of fear, in which you have to regard your fellow employees as potential enemies. If they look good, you look bad, so you had best not cooperate with anyone at work.

I went through an environment like this while working at Large Telecommunications Company, in which just about every week there were layoffs. Is what I am working on considered to be important, or does some corporate suit deem it to be worthless and expendable? It was sort of like those old war movies, in which there was a 5 percent probability that you would be shot down on any given mission. Will I survive the next mission? How many missions will it be before I get shot down?

In a corporate environment, some projects are deemed to promise future growth, whereas others are deemed to be losers and are prone to being cancelled. And in the academic environment, some departments promise to attract more majors, whereas others are deemed to be declining and are attracting fewer and fewer students. Something has to go. But if they cut too heavily in the liberal arts area, this might displease their accreditors.

I guess that Quinnipac goofed in not involving the faculty in how the downsizing was to be handled. They were laying off on one side of the house, while hiring on the other side. It appears that the faculty was not consulted at all, and it appears that the decision was handed from on high by a bunch of soulless bean-counters. This whole thing makes administrators look bad. Unless Quinnipac back off, I hope that someone sues their tushies off.

 
Well said, Dean Dad Reed.

As you suggest, the strangest thing is that they say they left it up to the Deans to decide where to cut. If it was truly data driven, they should know exactly where the enrollment shortfalls are and the question would be much narrower than was described in this story.

I'll also add a vague version of an anecdote from the past. I know of one case that dragged on for years in Federal court. When the university finally lost, they were on the hook for N years of back pay with interest and cost-of-living raises, where N was a two digit number. Ouch!
 
As I hear more about the Quinnipiac layoffs, I am beginning to think that it might be premature to condemn their administration before we know more of the facts.

As I understand it, none of the laid-off faculty members were tenured. And I think that the majority of them were off the tenure track, which means that they were probably contingent faculty on one-year contracts. When these contracts expire, the administration can decide not to renew them for any reason whatsoever, or even for no reason at all. So it may have been that there really wasn’t a layoff, but simply a nonrenewal of contracts, but the overall effect was the same.

It may be that even the affected members who were on the tenure track were also on one-year contracts, which effectively means that they too were contingent faculty. When I was a tenure-track faculty member at Research-Intensive Technological Institute, I was on a contract, which meant that I was really a contingent faculty member. My contract was for three years, and when it expired, the Institute could have let me go for any reason whatsoever. And that almost happened, since I probably spent too much time on teaching and not enough time on research.

Here at Proprietary Art Institute, there is no such thing as a tenure-track, since tenure doesn’t exist here. All of our full-timers are on one-year contracts, which can be renewed or not at the administration’s discretion. Although the laying-off of a full-timer before their contract expires in principle requires some sort of cause, this has happened here several times. Some friends of mine were let go outside their contracts. The administration can always trump up some reason to let any employee go. I am sure that the dean has a file listing all of your mistakes and screw-ups—all of the bad things said about you in your course evaluations, all of the complaints from your students, all of the bad stuff said about you on RateMyProfessors.com, even all of the stuff written about you on the bathroom walls. If they want to let you go before your contract expires, all they have to do is pull out that file, and if you sue they can simply wave that file past the judge.

 
You see haste, I see nimbleness.

Don't renew 16 here, add 12 there, sounds pretty serious until you learn that they have 400 full time faculty. What is the usual turnover at an institution this large?

Next year's incoming class will be down 12%, and they are private, so that's a meaningful revenue decline. Probably not a temporary blip, given the location. I don't think they have the luxury of waiting until next year to balance the budget and to reset priorities.

It looks like those not returning were on annual contracts. If so, their legal case will be weak.

Could the process have been better? I don't have enough information to judge. But sometimes it's better to rip off the band aid than to tease it off over a period of months.

 
Even if many of the laid-off faculty were on one-year contracts, there's a significant difference between informing someone of a non-renewal in November or even January (required in my institution's faculty handbook for renewals past the initial one -- i.e. renewals of non-probationary non-TT faculty) and informing them of a non-renewal in May. The earlier notification allows the person to hunt for a similar job (probably unsuccessfully, especially if they need to stay in the area, but at least it takes into account the usual calendar for academic job searches, and opens up the possibility of a national search, convention interviews, etc., etc.). The later one basically leaves the faculty member high and dry, searching desperately for adjunct or non-academic work. It also suggests, at least to me, poor management, in that the administration did a poor job of predicting future enrollment trends, and/or of managing the budget so as to have room to treat long-time contingent faculty decently, even if it meant taking a bit of a budget hit, and/or temporarily slowing the growth of in-demand programs so as to make for a smoother transition.

They could even have let faculty know now that they'd probably only get one more one-year contract -- perhaps even offered to pay a semester's wages to anyone who offered to leave now -- and probably have saved money over dealing with a bunch of lawsuits (assuming there's anything in the faculty handbook about when non-renewals must be announced. Fellow contingent faculty: check your faculty handbooks, and never, never assume you'll get even the amount of notice mentioned there, at least not without a fight. Also, think of this anytime someone asks you to to do something that isn't strictly your job, out of loyalty to the institution. This sort of attitude goes both ways.)
 
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