Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Higher Ed and the New York Yankees

First, a disclaimer: I can’t stand the Yankees.

That said, they make an awfully good metaphor for a recent development in higher ed.

The Yankees’ modus operandi (at least, during the years when Steinbrenner isn’t suspended) is to treat their farm system as trade bait. They rarely promote from within; rather, they send away their promising younger players, preferring to pay top dollar for established veterans. The upside of this strategy is that the Yankees land some great talent, and they don’t have to put up with learning curves. The downsides, though, are several: the costs are astronomical (they have the highest payroll in baseball, by a large margin), established players don’t come with guarantees (Raul Mondesi, anyone?), their best years are often behind them (Jason Giambi, anyone?), and they lose out on some wonderful, cheap young talent.

This is, more or less, the situation facing colleges now when they do administrative searches (albeit at dramatically lower salaries, alas…).

Historically, academic managers (chairs, deans, vice presidents, provosts) have emerged from the faculty. Faculty who show promise have often risen through the ranks, carrying with them the ground-level knowledge of what is involved in actually teaching. The pipeline starts in the faculty.

With the move over the last twenty or thirty years to a mostly-adjunct workforce, the opening of the pipeline has narrowed dramatically. (In baseball terms, we shut down the farm system to cut costs.) As with any promotion system, the effects were felt first at the bottom: graduate students suddenly had tremendous difficulty finding stable, full-time employment. The effects have moved up the food chain over time. After more than a generation of skimping on new blood, many colleges now find themselves scrambling to find qualified people willing to take on administrative positions. In my home state, for example, several academic VP searches have been extended, simply for lack of desirable candidates. From what the Chronicle reports, the same is becoming true even of college presidencies.

As with the Yankees, lack of development at the early levels leads to greater costs and desperation at the higher levels. Oddly, though, I haven’t seen anywhere (except in this blog) a connecting of the dots.

The recent articles (and whispered scuttlebutt) about extended searches are still treating each extension as an isolated event, a fluke. The committee is too picky, or the cost of living in that area is too high, or the fundraising demands have spun out of control. Even allowing some truth to each of these, the more glaring and fundamental explanation has gone completely unaddressed: if you cheap out on your farm system, you just aren’t going to get the talented rookies.

The Yankees can sort of get away with it, since they have the luxury of infinite budgets. Colleges (generally) don’t, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’ve noticed the consequences of these developments in my own career. Coming out of graduate school, I couldn’t get arrested. After a spell of borderline employment, I latched on to a faculty position at a proprietary college – twelve-month teaching calendar, no prospect of tenure, all service courses, etc. For several years, I applied for faculty positions elsewhere, never landing one. After moving into administration, though, and shifting my search to administrative jobs, I suddenly became a (relatively) hot commodity. My current employer, to whom I am eternally grateful, hired me as a dean; it hasn’t hired a new professor in my academic discipline since the Nixon administration. Now, some neighboring colleges are struggling to fill VP positions, bemoaning the lack of good candidates. We recently had a consultant’s visit for one of our programs, and I was her tour guide for the day; our President specifically asked her not to recruit me. (I know that because she told me, with a mischievous plausible-deniability grin.)

In trying to find a faculty job, I struck out. In looking for administrative jobs that pay substantially more, I hit paydirt fairly quickly. There’s something askew here.

Colleges need to connect the dots, and need to look at full-time faculty not simply as a more expensive alternative to adjuncts, but also as an administrative farm team. The alternative is bidding wars, which would work out fine for me personally, but which are, in the long term, a losing strategy. The Yankees didn’t win the Series last year, or the year before, or the year before that, or the year before that…