Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Allocating Lines

In my first few years of deaning, the question of how to allocate new full-time faculty “lines” (positions, but they’re called lines because they’re lines in the budget) was easy.  There weren’t any to allocate.  You can’t divide by zero, but dividing zero itself is a snap.

Some years are like that.

Happily, this year isn’t.  We’ll soon be posting some positions.  This post is about how we make the allocation decisions.

There’s no single indicator that overwhelms everything else.  But the ones that count the most are:

Adjunct coverage.  How high is the percentage over time, and how difficult is it to get good adjuncts in that discipline?  By “over time,” I mean there’s some art in interpreting the spreadsheet for a given semester.  (And yes, I use an actual spreadsheet.)  In a small department, a full-timer’s absence for a semester for, say, a health issue or a sabbatical can skew the percentage pretty dramatically.  Any one semester’s data comes with asterisks.

The availability of good adjuncts in one field, as opposed to the other, will tend to favor a full-time hire in the other.  That’s because employers don’t hire to solve prospective employees’ problems; they hire to solve their own.  All else being equal, if it’s easier to get good adjuncts in English than in engineering, then the full-time position will go to engineering.  From the “micro” perspective of a single employer, that’s just common sense.  From a “macro” perspective of the industry as a whole, that suggests that the mismatch of supply and demand in certain fields can become self-perpetuating.  Supply depresses demand.  It’s Say’s Law in reverse.

Enrollments, both absolute and relative.  Although the college as a whole shows a given percentage change in enrollments from year to year, it isn’t evenly distributed.  Some departments show sustained enrollment growth and are straining at the seams; others are shrinking.  As Wayne Gretzky put it, skate to where the puck is going to be.  At one college, I had a dean argue for a new position in a department in which faculty were already struggling to find full loads.  Given desperate needs in other areas, I couldn’t justify it.

Accreditation and licensure rules.  Some areas, like Nursing, have rules specific to them that dictate certain faculty/student ratios, such as in clinicals.  Those cases have to be considered separately, as long as we value the accreditation.

Specific expertise.  This can be an issue when the one person who’s qualified in “x” retires, or when a college is trying to develop a new program or direction in “x.”  As a general rule, I like to have full-time faculty in every area in which we hire adjuncts, for the sake of continuity and quality control.  I like having someone who can vouch for subject matter expertise in adjunct candidates.  There are a few exceptions -- languages for which we can only support one section, or specific musical instruments -- but as a general rule, I think it makes sense.  Cases like those will lead to decisions that seem to contradict the spreadsheet, just because that criterion often won’t show on the spreadsheet.  Okay, the business department’s percentage is what it is, but the one person who does marketing isn’t there anymore.  You need someone to do that.  

I like to share the data with the deans and have a discussion with them before making any decisions, because they’re intimately aware of the asterisks in each program.  They invariably wind up making the final list smarter than it otherwise would have been.

What doesn’t go into the decision?  A desire to make the college more corporate.  Vendettas against individual department chairs.  Political favors.  Decanal empire building.  Life is too short to base decisions on those things.  Given limited resources -- and yes, please, I’d happily accept far more resources to hire far more full-time faculty and staff -- you do the best you can.  Given my druthers, I have a host of public policy recommendations for a more just and sane political economy, with salutary side effects on higher ed.  But internally, you play the hand you’re dealt.

These decisions aren’t automatic or easy, but I’m grateful to be able to make them at all.  Yes, I’d happily double or triple the number of new hires if we could pay for them.  For now, though, these criteria strike me as reasonable.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add, or delete, or change?

My first reaction was that you did hit everything, and more, but you didn't mention how you decide between assigning a line and assigning a full-time non-tenure position. The former does require an expectation that you will have demand for that one prof of subject X for the next 30 years (unless you are willing to go through whatever your contract requires to RIF that position), while the latter does not and is usually between the cost of adjuncts and t-t faculty.

Otherwise, you describe pretty much how our college historically decides whether to do a retirement replacement or add positions, and how to advertise that position within the field. Our adjunct ratio is higher for gen-ed service courses and (apart from labs) extremely low for "majors" gen-ed classes, but we do make sure we have faculty with specific teaching expertise that includes mentoring adjucts in those service classes.

But I will add that I have seen Deans with a bias against a specific subject area, although not at my college. And I am seeing hiring decisions that make the college more corporate with larger administrative empires, although those allocations are made above the level of Dean.
Not that it matters, but the economic term for what you're describing is "availability of substitutes".

Pick an area you want to shine in, for whatever reason, local needs, global needs, etc. Hire there
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