Monday, May 09, 2005


As my regular readers know, my faculty is very top-heavy in terms of seniority, age, title, and salary. The largest single department, about 30 full-timers, has exactly one untenured prof; most of the rest are full professors. (Adjuncts are another matter altogether; younger, more diverse, badly underpaid. Maybe if we pitched full-time hiring as a diversity initiative…)

In some ways, low turnover speaks well of the place. If the college were a dump, people would leave faster. That’s what’s happening at my previous school – I recently touched base with some former colleagues, who report that after the latest round of layoffs, pretty much anybody with any other options took them. As the place circles the drain, the most capable employees bail out. That hasn’t happened here, which is a good sign.

The bad news, though, is that expectations formed during previous, better-funded decades tend to linger.

The new VP and I have tried, with middling success, to bring performance and rewards into some sort of alignment, where possible. This means, at times, bumping senior people out of their sinecures to make room for the folks who actually do the work. So far, we’ve been greeted more by shock and perplexity than indignation. The idea that performance and reward should go together is so utterly foreign that it isn’t even threatening; it’s mystifying. Intelligent, well-credentialed people have said to me, with straight faces, that it’s immoral to sanction a longtime employee, regardless of performance. When I counter that it’s immoral to continue to draw a paycheck for a job you stopped doing about ten years ago, I get perplexed silence.

Most management textbooks are staggeringly useless for academia. They assume as a matter of course that managers have carrots and sticks at their disposal: merit raises, title changes, quick promotions, threats of dismissal. In tenured, unionized academia, none of these apply. After years of budget cuts, anything discretionary is pretty much wiped out, so I can’t reward good behavior, and the combination of tenure/union rules and institutional culture means I can’t punish bad. At best, I can try to appeal to the better angels of everyone’s nature, but there are natural limits to that.

(Has anybody seen a useful management book for academia? I haven’t yet, and it’s not for lack of trying. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.)

Yesterday, a very senior professor, an intelligent guy with a doctorate and decades of experience here, told me with a straight face that faculty promotions (associate to full professor, mostly) should be based entirely on seniority. I managed not to laugh out loud, but it took effort. If he had been arguing from self-interest, I would have at least understood his position, but he wasn’t; he’s already at the top, and was arguing from principle. I guess it’s possible to design a less productive system, but it would take conscious effort.

This probably wouldn’t bother me so much if there weren’t thousands of ridiculously well-qualified young Ph.D.’s out there desperately looking for full-time work. The few young’uns we have (here, defined as under 50) are generally outstanding. If I could trade a few on-the-job retirees for some first-round draft choices, we could really get the place moving.

Sometimes, I just get tired of hearing “back in 1977…”

Last week I attended (yet another) chamber of commerce rubber-chicken luncheon honoring some ridiculously successful business personage. The guest of honor discussed the growth of his business, using phrases like “tripled in the last three years.” When asked to describe the greatest challenges his business faces, he said things like “finding enough qualified people” and “harmonizing the IT systems and cultures of the businesses we acquire.” In other words, problems of growth. It’s a different world out there. We eliminated almost anything discretionary some time ago, yet the political pressure to cut, cut, cut continues unabated. In our corner of the world, growth is defined as failure. (Internally, of course, it’s the other way around. Deans are in the enviable position of trying to contain the conflict.)

Faculty and union types like to complain that deans try to run colleges like businesses. If only! I’d LOVE to triple the size of the place in three years. I’d LOVE to manage the dilemmas of growth. And a corporate salary wouldn’t suck, either. Instead, I have to look for money in shrinking budgets to cover blue books, enduring all manner of ad hominem abuse from tenured folk who haven’t worked in the corporate world since 1969, if then.

It’s final exam week. One more week of chicken and peas before things calm down. Repeat to self: Life of the Mind, Life of the Mind...