Wednesday, November 16, 2016


The Foolproof Recruiting Tool We Don’t Have

So endowed chairs are a “foolproof recruiting tool.”  I’ll take the Chronicle’s word for it.

In thirteen years (!) of community college administration, I’ve never hired a professor at a senior level.  I suspect I never will.  

Universities, and some four-year colleges, have “endowed chair” positions that allow for senior hires.  Endowed chairs come with both money and prestige, and are designed to recruit superstars from other places.  The idea is to raise the profile of the university, thereby making it easier to attract both grants and top students.  

I’ve never seen or heard of a community college doing that.  

The obvious reason is cost; given how much tighter our budgets are than everyone else’s, spending outsize sums on one person would be a tough sell.  We don’t typically have major research operations, and students typically don’t pick a community college based on star power.  Location, institutional reputation, and overall climate matter more.  The incentive to recruit the high-powered scholar of Abstract Studies just isn’t there.

But that’s not the whole picture.  Part of the problem is that research output is easier to compare across institutions than teaching is.  That’s why graduate students preparing for the market are often told to focus ruthlessly on writing.  Research carries a market value that teaching doesn’t.  If I wanted to hire a senior-level superstar history teacher, as opposed to researcher, I’m not even sure how to find one.  What distinguishes a teaching superstar from a really good teacher?  Can I document it to a sufficient level to justify the pay differential?

One unhappy consequence of the lack of senior faculty hiring at this level is that tenured people are basically stuck.  If they decide they’d rather be somewhere else, for whatever reason, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to find the same job at the same salary elsewhere.  The same job elsewhere would require starting over again, with an entry-level salary.  The “paying dues” clock would restart.

People leave, of course.  In some fields, they bolt for industry.  Sometimes they follow spouses or prospective spouses.  Sometimes they take administrative jobs, where the market is either less secure or less trapped, depending on your perspective.  Occasionally they pick up a new line of work entirely.  I once had a math professor leave to become a full-time wood carver.  I admired his panache and wished him well.

But to a greater degree than in nearly any other industry, leaving has to involve either career change or salary cut.  Here, there’s no such thing as a bidding war for an English professor.

Administratively, that’s a mixed blessing.  At one level, it means not having to compete with higher salaries elsewhere.  Although I think the faculty here are outstanding, I don’t lay awake at night worrying about them being poached or raided.  That’s not how this works.  And not bringing in new people at dramatically higher salaries means not having to have awful conversations about salary compression, which is fine by me.  

But it also means that some people who would really rather be someplace else, can’t be.  Instead, they just stick around, getting a little bit crankier every year.  Tenured positions become golden handcuffs.  You can leave, but only at considerable personal sacrifice.  Those who aren’t in a position to make that sacrifice, don’t.  

In a more perfect world, good teachers would be sufficiently coveted that the better ones would have more options after they had established themselves.  But as it is, in this sector, they pretty much don’t.  And given the state of operating budgets, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’m not opposed to trying the foolproof recruiting tool at a community college; for that matter, if there are any interested donors out there who’d like to endow a chair, I’m happy to take their call.  But for now, it just doesn’t describe this world.  Apparently, we’re not foolproof.  

Whether there is a salary cut can depend on years of experience. My college will credit a new faculty member with years of experience on our salary schedule, up to a max, and others do the same. I know some young faculty who found it easy to move to another CC in the state without losing much of anything. In fact, since new faculty are in a "defined contribution" retirement plan, even retirement benefits don't hold them here. The golden leg irons only come into play when they might lose 5 or 10 years on a salary schedule.

No one comes looking for them, but the teaching superstars do stand out based on letters of recommendation based on a half-dozen years of teaching. I know one who got two offers after needing to move to a different city for personal reasons. But, as you note, there wasn't a bidding war on salary.
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If my CC had the ability to hire at the senior level, I wouldn't want to focus primarily on teaching ability. Getting good teachers isn't the challenge, at least in English. Most of our hires have been adjuncts for a number of years so the teaching record is there. To me, the great benefit to being able to make senior hires would be dept and institutional service. Being able to bring in people who do not want to go into administration but possess valuable skills that are hard for entry level faculty to acquire, for example being able to lead an overhaul of curriculum or improve online classes.
I doubt that endowed chairs would have the same recruiting appeal for most community college students. Most don't even have a major when they start, let alone enough knowledge in the field to choose a school based on a research superstar. They want good teachers who will get them to graduation (and math teachers with miraculous powers).
This strikes me as a dysfunctional labor market - you are overpaying for underachieving senior faculty, and underpaying for overachievers. Is this dysfunctional market ripe for disruption? Part of the rub, as you point out, is that it currently is more difficult to distinguish over- and under-achievers based on teaching than it is on scholarship. But I suspect that assessment tools in the pipeline -- including some you've discussed in prior posts -- will make the distinction easier in the not-too-distant future.
Rick Bales @9:33AM

He didn't say you can't distinquish over- and underachievers, he said he doesn't know how you would distinquish an overachiever (worth protecting and granting tenure) from a superstar worth (say) three times the highest salary in a department. That said, the big problem is how to find such a person. Unlike research, the metrics are only known internally, not externally.

Post tenure review, increasingly common at CCs, will eliminate those who become underachievers over time if the administrators care to pursue that solution. Universities are the ones who bemoan giving tenure to a bad teacher based on research, then being stuck with a bad teacher who no longer does research after 15 or 20 years have gone by.

But poaching a teacher can happen. I know of one case where a teaching superstar was poached from one university to another. He was insanely effective (in the popularity sense) as a lecturer, drawing students to his closed-circuit video lectures who just wanted to watch. Very cost effective, with several thousand students "watching" a single lecture performance. He was also a capable researcher, but he was hired to put butts in seats (or bucks in the bank) so others would not have to teach that intro class.

But that must be an exception that proves the rule. The closest cases I have seen are ones where the better speaker/showman won out over a person with similare research expertise. His tenure was granted for research, not teaching.
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