Friday, June 24, 2005

Gone Fishin'

We're spending the last week of June exploring the limits of sunscreen. No purchase requisitions to sign, no internet to check, no nothin'.

Like the late-night guys do, I'll run a 'best of blog' for the week. Some of my faves that I posted before anyone knew I was here include:

Use It or Lose It

Adjunct Nation

Registration, Speed Limits, and Whining

Class Observations

Also, check out the links. Tiny Cat Pants is always worth reading, and the indefatigable Danigirl is an inspiration.

See ya in July!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Dean's Interview

Today I’m interviewing a few candidates for faculty positions. They’ve already run the gauntlet within their respective departments, and the departments have identified them as their top choices.

I’ll assume that the departments have vetted them appropriately for content knowledge and ability to teach the relevant courses. My job is to explain the institutional realities of the college, and, in the words of my VP, to try to sniff any personal weirdness.

The Dean’s interview is a very different animal from the faculty search committee interview. When a candidate goes before a departmental search committee, s/he is probably one of six or seven to make it that far. If a candidate gets the call to meet the dean, s/he is probably one of two or three. When going before the department, the candidate is trying to stand out; when meeting the dean, the candidate is trying to fit in. Put differently, the search committee looks for something to like; I look for red flags.

At a community college, big red flags would include an inability to stop talking about one’s advisor or research (that screams “I won’t be happy here”); a focus on possibilities for release time (that screams “I want to teach as little as possible,” death at a teaching institution); a superior attitude (why does anyone – anyone – think this will ever work?); or a massive blind spot about the realities of students at an open-admissions college. (I’d actually favor someone who had taught at Midtier State over someone whose entire teaching experience was at Ivy U, just because I couldn’t be confident that the Ivy U teacher could handle underprepared students.)

Another way to look at it: the search committee looks for merit and/or quality, where the dean looks for the needs of the institution. Beyond a certain level of competence, additional brilliance in research just isn’t that important here. I look for people who actually want to be at a teaching institution, and who know what that means. If they’re settling, I’m not interested.

Back in my faculty days, I imagined that deans would be on the lookout for political viewpoints, sexual identity, etc. At least for me, those fall firmly under “who cares?”. I’m on the lookout for folks who will dodge academic advisement at registration time, who will whine constantly about the teaching load, who will pick up stakes and move within a year or two, or who just can’t play well with others.

Is that banal and corporate? I don’t think so; these criteria only come into play with the finalists, who have already (presumably) demonstrated intellectual liveliness and the ability to teach. One of my chairs reported that one of their interviewees, whom he described as “a really nice guy,” made several egregious errors of fact in his teaching demo. That was all we needed to kick him off the list.

My concern is that full-time lines are rare birds, and people who get them tend to keep them for 30 years or more. A bad hire is a lingering pain for a long, long time. A terrible one can be fired quickly enough, but in this climate, it’s not a given that we keep the position. Faculty work in close quarters with each other for years on end; a whiny prima donna, no matter how strong academically, just isn’t worth it. (We don’t have that many, but the ones we do have suck up far more than their share of the local oxygen.)

I don’t mind politics different from my own (at least, not in this context); I don’t care about sex lives or union activism or tattoos. But if a candidate can’t convince me that this would be a happy home, we’re on to the next candidate.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Yesterday, as I was walking back to my office, minding my own business, I was coming closer to an English professor talking to a student in the hallway. The professor is a lesbian in her 40’s, and the student was young and male. As I approached, unnoticed by either, he lifted his shirt up to his neck to show her an impressive sunburn.

What, exactly, is the etiquette in this situation?

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, son.”

“That’s appropriate.”

“Tummy rubs are against college policy.”

Or perhaps a simple slap upside the head?

Since I didn’t really have time to think about it, I just walked up beside her, said “I didn’t see that,” and walked on. She burst out laughing, and the student lowered his shirt, so I think it was in the ballpark. Still, they don’t teach you this in dean school.

Corrolary: if she had been straight, would such a light treatment have been appropriate?

Summer school brings its own set of joys…

Happy Birthday to Blog

It’s been a year. In the coming year: less talk, more rock. No, that doesn’t make sense. Maybe less despair, more angst. No, I’m too old for angst. Less ennui, more neurosis? Nah. Less irony, more rhyme? Less links, more thinks? (so much for rhyming) Less adjectives, more nouns?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Threatening Not to Quit

One of the recurring office-worker-bee fantasies in our culture is the flamboyant resignation. “Take this job and shove it!” American Beauty had the best fantasy-resignation ever, but we’ve all seen them (and dreamed about them) – the delicious moment of telling the idiot boss just what he can do with his reports, watching him squirm as you recount in salacious detail every little indignity you suffered at his wretched little hands...

I think academia is the only industry in which the fantasy works the other way. It’s the only industry in which the workers stick it to the boss by threatening not to quit.

Between seniority-based salaries, lifetime tenure, no retirement age, and budget squeezes, the only breathing room that opens up in academic budgets comes from retirements. Retirements are voluntary, since federal judges with lifetime appointments decreed it so, so all that managers can do is hope to get enough in a given year to make up this year’s shortfall.

Tenured faculty figured this out some time ago, so one of their favorite games is to float the possibility of retiring, just to see the look on the dean’s face. I’ve actually had conversations with senior faculty in which they’ve tried to use the carrot of their own retirement to negotiate something with me.

As a manager, this is supremely frustrating. I’d love to call the bluff – “there’s the door, you know how to use it” – but I can’t. If they decide they want to stay, they can, indefinitely. Some of them, I’m convinced, stay just out of spite. (This year I had one who actually admitted that he was waiting out the previous academic VP. The VP finally left, so he did, too.) So I do the best I can, which is to try to maintain a poker face while inwardly doing three math problems – how much lower would the replacement’s salary be, how likely am I to be able to hire a replacement at all (as opposed to still more adjuncts), and what’s the likelihood I’m being lied to? (Typical answers: 50k, 50/50, and 50/50.)

Someday, if I’m caught in just the right mood, I’ll respond with “you don’t have the guts.” That will probably be the day of my forced retirement...


Being a parent means being more tired after a day off than before it.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Adjuncts in the Boonies, Revisited

A long-suffering adjunct at a rural community college dropped me a line to suggest a refinement to my fewer-adjuncts-in-rural-areas theory. At her school, apparently, there is a persistently high adjunct ratio, fed by a nearby Rural State U. The monocultural yield is bad enough that accreditors actually mentioned it in their last report, but it’s not bad enough yet for her college to actually recruit more full-timers to offset it.

My previous school had a version of that. It was literally one mile from Flagship State, so most of the liberal arts faculty hailed from Flagship State. There were enough different disciplines represented that it didn’t get too inbred, but it was noticeable. (I’m sure Flagship State would blanch at the suggestion that it was a ‘feeder,’ but it was.)

So, a possible refinement to the theory: colleges in rural areas that don’t have a major ‘feeder’ graduate university nearby will have fewer adjuncts.

Any thoughts?

Heading Inland

For Father’s Day Weekend, The Wife, The Boy, The Girl, and I are stuffing ourselves, the playpen, the high chair, the bottles, the formula, and all the young-child trappings into our compact car for a seven-hour (plus stops) drive (each way!) inland, to see my Dad.

Dad still lives in the county I grew up in. I call it The Land That Time Forgot; it’s one of those areas that peaked about 40 years ago, and just can’t break out of its decline. It will be the first time he will meet The Girl, so it’s a pretty important trip.

Fourteen hours roundtrip, through the boonies, with two young children, in a small car. What can possibly go wrong?...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Dad Vanity

We’ve been having some issues with air conditioning at home – it never shuts off – so we called the repair guy to come and take a look. He asked me when the last time was that I changed the filter in the furnace. Honestly, I had no idea, but I couldn’t admit that to the repair guy, so I muttered something noncommittal and changed the subject. After he left, I changed the filter.

Why? Why?

Why couldn’t I just slap my forehead and tell the truth?

Dad Vanity strikes again.

I try not to let Dad Vanity influence too much of our day-to-day life, and it’s usually not that bad – I’ve never been a car snob; my athletic goals for the kids involve participation, rather than stardom; we have one television, and it’s not large. (Though I’ve pined from afar for years now, we still don’t have TiVo.) I mow the lawn often enough to prevent complaints from the neighbors, and spread the evil weedkiller maybe twice a year, but that’s all.

And yet, when asked point-blank by the repair guy, I couldn’t fess up. Just couldn’t do it.

As a recovering nerd, there are some Dad skills I just never picked up. Some of them I don’t mind, but there’s always that lingering guilt about not knowing how to fix something, or what to look for when something breaks, or forgetting some routine maintenance task. My father-in-law knows all of these things, and is more than willing to help, but asking is always a little bit painful.

Deconstructing gender roles is all well and good, but there’s just something about being asked point-blank by the repair guy…

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Letters of Recommendation, Revisited

An aside in a previous entry, on the silliness of letters of recommendation, brought forth a flurry of emails and comments. Apparently, I’m not the only one who sees them as archaic and fundamentally flawed.

This morning I received an especially troubling email from a professor who discovered that the “characteristic caution” with which she wrote was being misread as “damning with faint praise.” Part of me wanted to tell her to think about her audience, rather than her ‘characteristic’ anything, but part of me had to admit that she has a point. Letters of recommendation, in this employer’s market, need to be effusive, distinctive, on-point, and (preferably) from famous people. A thoughtful, balanced, circumspect letter from a solid-but-not-famous author is worse than nothing; it screams ‘mediocrity,’ which is death in this market. (Whether famous people are better mentors is another issue – in my experience, it’s pretty much the opposite. They get famous by being self-centered, not by nurturing others. Exceptions exist, but they’re exceptions.)

The great tragedy, of course, is that letters are such horrible indicators. They really don’t tell you much at all.

I’ve never been trained in how to write a letter of recommendation. I’ve never seen an industry standard. HR has issued a few ‘thou-shalt-nots,’ addressing the predictable no-nos, but that’s about it. You’re just supposed to know: know not to be ‘characteristically cautious,’ not to be thoughtful or pensive or even fair. Swing for the fences, and hope for the best. This, in the name of finding the best academic minds! (Although I’ve never seen anything written specifically on this, this may be another area in which female academics are at a disadvantage. If it’s true that women are more likely to shy away from either self-promotion or hyperbole in promoting others, they may both get and give less effective letters. The cultural issues here are potentially legion: a mentor from another part of the world might tend towards a more circumspect style, dooming her students to endless adjuncting. There’s nothing fair about it.)

Worse, the larger graduate programs, which are precisely the ones with the famous names, are so laden with students that the letters inevitably start to sound the same.

In administrative job searches, letters have pretty much been dispensed with altogether, probably because fear of litigation has made them so predictably bland. They’ve been replaced by requests for (ever longer) lists of names, phone numbers, and email addresses, on the theory that spontaneous comments may be less guarded, and therefore more helpful, than written ones. There’s considerable truth to this, but it raises an awkward issue for the administrative job seeker: when you ask someone to be a reference, you’re effectively announcing that you’re considering leaving. The more considerate committees will say in the ad that they’ll only contact the references of finalists, which at least minimizes the collateral damage, but it still poisons the well for finalists who don’t get the job.

(Oddly, this is the one area – okay, the only area – in which grad students actually have an advantage. They’re supposed to be looking. The question of ‘what if they find out I’m leaving?’ is a non-issue. Once you’re actually ensconced somewhere, though, getting tagged as disloyal can be a real problem.)

A modest proposal: get away from letters altogether, shorten the list of references, and do more telephone interviews of candidates themselves. Put more emphasis on the cover letter, which, in my experience on committees (both faculty and administrative), is almost always more revealing than third-party letters anyway. Focus on the candidate, not on the references. I’ve seen too many candidates with exemplary letters who turned out, in person, to be underwhelming; I shudder when I think of how many exemplary people got passed over for uninspired letters.

What this implies about the larger issue of peer review, well…

New Email Address

For some pretty uninteresting reasons, I've adopted a new email address: ccdean (at) myway (dot) com. Please direct any private messages there.


Monday, June 13, 2005

A System Nobody Would Design

The Girl will be a year old next month, which I mention because this story won’t make sense without knowing that.

I’m still fighting my health insurance provider to get payments for the doctors who attended her birth. I’ve been denied several times now, on the grounds that The Girl’s name was not on the original enrollment form from two years ago. When I counter that the reason for that is that she hadn’t been BORN YET, I get told to send a letter to that effect.


So I do, which occasions another denial.

The insurance provider, which is technically a nonprofit but you’d never know it (it rhymes with ‘shoe floss’), suffers absolutely no harm in denying payment for the birth of my daughter. In fact, quite the opposite; it continues to earn interest on the money it isn’t paying my doctors. It’s immune from lawsuit (on the novel grounds that lawsuits would drive up costs – wouldn’t want that!), immune from damages, and effectively monopolistic (I can’t shop around for another provider retroactively), so it can dawdle all it wants. In the meantime, my daughter’s doctors don’t get paid, and my credit rating is just sitting there...

By any objective standard, this is insane.

Start with the obvious: the medical literature is fairly clear on finding that childbirth often results in a child. Ergo, if childbirth is covered, you’d expect the insurance company to recognize the possibility of a resultant child. You’d think.

I tried to construct a scenario in which I played by the (retroactive) rules the company told me. Prior to birth, I would apply for a social security number for Little One. I’d get turned down, since I couldn’t specify a date of birth that hadn’t happened yet. So I’d schedule an induced labor (sorry, honey!), guess a gender, pick a name, and apply. I’d get turned down, on the grounds that there’s no birth certificate, because Little One hadn’t been BORN YET.

Meanwhile, my college struggles financially because health insurance premiums have been going up at double-digit rates for years.

Where is the money going? It obviously isn’t going to the doctors or the hospitals. It certainly isn’t going to the patients.

I have noticed lots of ads for pills that cause anal leakage and/or four-hour erections, so I assume some of the money is going into marketing. I can only assume the rest is divided between profits (the nonprofit I used is under investigation for building windfall reserves, preparatory to going for-profit) and marketing.

Nobody would design this system. It’s a money sink, and it’s starving out just about every other part of the economy (except the parts that don’t provide health insurance, like temp agencies). If rates increase 15% a year, they double in five years. That’s about the pace we’re on.

(In fact, nobody designed this system. It emerged during World War II, as employers needed to compete for employees during a wage freeze. "Fringe benefits" became the method for doing that. After the war, the interests in favor of maintaining that system blocked Truman's proposal for national health care. The insanity has mushroomed since.)

The sad thing is, higher ed gets raked over the coals for tuition increases that are far slower than health insurance increases. Our tuition increases are read as signs of waste; health insurance increases are taken as facts of nature. So we cut, and cut, and cut, and it’s never enough. We have contract negotiations coming up soon – I don’t even want to imagine how tense those will be. Nobody wants their benefits cut, but at the rate we’re going, what else is there to do?

I read that Canada just repealed its ban on private health insurance. Note to Canadian readers: are you sure?

Friday, June 10, 2005

Peer Review, Part 2: Actual Responses from Actual Peers!

Yesterday’s admittedly scattershot rant attracted some really thoughtful and intelligent commentary (thereby implicitly invalidating my thesis). Maybe peer review works best in the blogosphere?

Ianqui made an excellent point about the turnaround time on academic journal articles. I’ve heard stories of frustrated authors mailing birthday cards to articles they’ve submitted. Back in the day, typesetting needs dictated long lead times. Obviously, this is no longer the case, and in the age of email and blogs, the only lags should be caused by readers not getting around to reading.

I suspect that part of the problem is a lack of incentive. If you’re a reader for a journal, is good performance rewarded? (That’s a symptom of a larger issue in academia, which I think can be traced to its aristocratic pretensions: letters of recommendation. Is there a less useful, less rewarded, less practical holdover than these? As with reading journal submissions, writing letters of recommendation is taken as part of the noblesse oblige of academia, thoughtful nuggets of wisdom to be tossed off between swigs of sherry, yet entire careers hinge on them. To call this system ‘unsustainable’ would be too generous.)

Doc turned one of my examples around on me, pointing out (correctly) that most of the substance of Freakonomics originated in peer reviewed journals. Good point. Slogging through the peer reviewed journals in my own discipline (which isn’t economics), I’ll just say that Leavitt strikes me as exceptional.

Doc also pointed out, correctly, that blind peer review can prevent favoritism and the dominance of Names. The downside of that, though, is that it also seems to prevent anything risky, interdisciplinary, or terribly interesting. By homogenizing the product, we can diversify the producers; Henry Ford figured that out 100 years ago. Is that really a worthy goal?

Single-editor journals can be maddeningly idiosyncratic, but that’s part of their utility. As with blogs, they reflect the editorial tastes of actual people. They create space for risk-taking.

Finally, the divine Aunt B (whose blog, tiny cat pants, has quickly become a favorite) made a point about authorial position that I had never thought of in quite that way. She noted that, in writing for a peer-reviewed journal, you’re assuming that you’re writing for the three people in the field who know more about your work than you do – in other words, you’re writing like a student, trying to curry approval. Hence the forced prose, pedantic footnoting, bootlicking, etc. When you assume instead that you know more than your audience does, you tone down the pedantry, adopt clearer prose, get to the point, and produce something more readable. Maybe part of the reason so much academic writing is so painfully bad is that we’ve adopted a cultural practice based on a sort of professional regression. Rather than owning the authority of knowledge, we hide behind footnotes, just like the nervous students we once were.

It may just be me, but it’s hard to convey just how brilliant an insight that is. Compare the prose style and authorial positioning of a Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, or Barbara Ehrenreich to a typical academic journal article. The former could be charged with arrogance, but damn, they’re readable. And read. Unlike journals.

Aunt B’s observation may give me a way out of the (admittedly stupid) dilemma in which I trapped myself. In criticizing peer review, I’m obviously vulnerable to the question “as opposed to what?”. Maybe the problem is instead the criteria the peers use. Ianqui, Doc, and Aunt B gave me some damn good peer review, unpaid, on the same day the entry was posted. Thank you all for proving me at least partially wrong. Maybe there’s hope...

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Peer Review, Small Audiences, and The Incredible Shrinking Guilds

A friend recently asked me who I’ve been reading. I had to admit that most of the folks I’ve been reading for the last several years have been from outside my home discipline. (I don’t just mean the management lit, but the stuff I read to keep my ‘scholarly’ side alive.) When asked why, I could only say that the stuff from cognate disciplines is simply better – better focused, less caught up in the fetish of methodology, less imprisoned by footnotes, more willing to take risks.

From what I’m told by people in those cognate disciplines, though, the same problems hold true there, as well; I’m just reading the exceptions.

Without taking my personal taste as normative, I still have to wonder how a field with such wonderfully interesting subject matter became mired in such turgid irrelevance. When I try to think of contributions to the public discourse to emerge from my field in the last thirty years, I can think of exactly one, and that one is iffy.

What the hell? How can so many bright people, applying rigorous (and very, very extended) study to compelling issues, produce such unreadable crap?

I’m beginning to suspect ‘peer review.’ In order to be taken seriously, a scholarly article needs to be ‘peer reviewed,’ or given the stamp of approval by people already in the field. The idea is to prevent quackery, or faddism, and to keep a premium on academic rigor.

Well, okay, but has it worked?

Freakonomics and Moneyball, two of the more interesting popular books of the last few years, are both premised on the (empirically-tested) idea that groupthink can trump evidence. They both tell stories of people using empirical proof to show that articles of faith among ‘experts’ in a given field are either false or badly limited. In both books, the empirical evidence had to become overwhelming before the groupthink was broken.

What would a Freakonomics or Moneyball of academia look like?

Some fields lend themselves easily to reality checks. An engineer friend used to like to tell the story of the first-day lecture by a prof in her first semester of grad school: You Build Bridge. Bridge Fall Down. No Partial Credit! If the bridge falls down, peer review ain’t gonna save it. Other fields, like literature, are impervious almost by definition. If the very subject matter is, by definition, fiction, then empirical evidence can only be of glancing relevance.

(Before the inevitable flaming, let me just admit that I’m using broad strokes here. Certainly, it’s possible to discover new facts about old texts. Although I’m using Manichean language here, I’ll admit that there’s more of a continuum in reality. Polemical license.)

In the social sciences, we’re somewhere in between. There are some basic facts we can use to check interpretations – I recall explaining to one incredulous undergrad that Hamilton couldn’t have been influenced by Marx, because Hamilton died before Marx was born — but there’s also considerable space for interpreting the facts that exist. More basically, there is considerable disagreement over what constitutes an interesting problem.

In theory, I guess, peer review could help make up the difference between what we can verify objectively and what makes for a good interpretation. In practice, though, it seems to fall prey to a really dreary version of groupthink. A typical journal submission will be sent to three ‘peers’ to review. If one of those three doesn’t find the problem interesting, that’s that.

Interesting-ness was never supposed to be a criterion. Peer review is the worst possible mechanism for determining interesting-ness. In a sample size that small, interesting-ness is somewhere between groupthink and whim.

Accordingly, we get journal articles about ever-smaller and more specialized subjects (such as would appeal to, say, three reviewers), using ever more arcane methods (each carefully footnoted), while the world blissfully ignores everything we say.

I think this is part of why so many younger academics have taken to blogging. The gatekeepers are so caught up in the internal fetishes of their respective guilds that they’ve lost sight of the big picture. Blogging gets rid of the gatekeepers, and lets authors find their own peers. If the people who find my stuff interesting come from literature, or engineering, or chemistry, that’s cool.

As a biochemist correspondent noted, guilds were built to ensure that production took place in the interests of the producers. When consumers found other options, the guilds dissolved rapidly. I see the guild system of publishing (and all that goes with publishing) starting to break down. The growth of the University of Phoenix (and of business majors generally) is a signal from the public that we’ve stopped talking about what they care about. The academic job market, as brutal and perverse as it is, is a kind of reality check; the guilds are losing their ability to reproduce themselves. Maybe they’re producing what nobody wants?

Sorry for such a shaggy rant. I haven’t nailed this one down yet. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Freshman Seminars and the Tyranny of Transfer

Every so often, an enterprising professor proposes that we establish some team-taught interdisciplinary freshman seminars, both to stimulate student interest (read: retention) and to stimulate faculty interest (by breaking the monotony of teaching yet another section of the same intro course). It’s a great idea, I’d love to do it, but we can’t.

As a two-year school in an affluent area, we live and die by transfer. If a given course doesn’t transfer cleanly to the relevant four-year schools, we can’t do it. And, for reasons known only to them, four-year schools don’t accept our interdisciplinary offerings (even though they have no problem with their own, even in the freshman year).

Sometimes they’ll try to finesse the transfer issue by accepting a course as a ‘free’ elective. This sounds okay, until you realize that they’re classifying 24 credits as ‘free’ electives, and their program only accepts 12. In effect, they’ve disallowed twelve credits, without actually owning up to doing so. ‘Free elective’ status is where credits go to die.

I don’t think it’s a ‘quality’ issue. I t.a.’d at a respected university as a grad student, and can say with confidence that a student who gets a small intro class with a real professor here gets at least as much, if not more, than a student in a lecture hall of 300 at State U. (Esp. when a t.a. does the discussion sections and grading!) In a team-taught course, this would be even more true.

It isn’t an issue of ‘giving away’ credits, either, since the local four-year schools accept a full two years from students who stick to the traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Honestly, other than a certain obtuseness in admissions departments, I don’t know what the reason is. Class snobbery, maybe? Maybe freshman seminars are intended only for residential, as opposed to commuter, students? (If that’s the case, the argument strikes me as a very slippery slope!) In trying to negotiate ‘articulation agreements’ with some local four-year schools, I’ve run repeatedly into issues of internal governance. Even if a dean or provost wants to accept our students as juniors, the faculty in a given department frequently block the courses, claiming ‘academic integrity.’ I’ve seen the way some of those schools teach their intro courses: academic integrity is not the issue. Other than either snobbery or turf, I can’t explain it.

I understand the virtue of the traditional disciplinary intro courses, and certainly wouldn’t advocate moving away from all of them. But if a student were to replace, say, a traditional, discipline-based elective with an interdisciplinary, theme-driven course, I just don’t see the academic issue.

Oddly enough, at a two-year college, new preps are actually exercises in faculty renewal. Between the truncated curriculum and the reality of attrition, faculty spend most of their time teaching the same intro course, over and over again, indefinitely. A team-taught seminar would give them a rare chance to take a fresh look at their teaching.

(Full disclosure: for four semesters, I team-taught a course at my previous school with someone from a different, but related, discipline. It was incredibly valuable as a development experience, and, on good days, was one of the best courses I’ve ever taught.)

Do other folks at two-year schools have this problem? Can anyone at a four-year school enlighten me as to the reasons for this?

Monday, June 06, 2005

Keeping the Line Warm

Another Damned Medeivalist
made a good point in a comment on an earlier entry. Some older faculty don’t want to retire because they can’t be sure that their positions will be replaced. (In academic jargon, they’d lose the ‘line,’ or position.) If the choice is between a senior tenured prof and a slew of adjuncts, department chairs could be excused for prevailing upon their most expensive faculty to stick around.

There’s some truth to this. I’ve been forced to leave a frustrating number of retirements unreplaced, and I can’t guarantee anybody, at this point, that any given position will actually be filled.

This cycle can quickly become self-fulfilling. If more veteran faculty stick around, their (comparatively) high salaries make the underlying financial situation worse, making replacements of the few who do leave less likely. If an entire cohort went at once, we could be reasonably certain of replacing at least a substantial fraction of it; if only a few go, it’s hard to replace any.

Last Spring I actually had a senior professor tell me that, if I could guarantee in writing that he would be replaced, he’d put in his retirement notice. The offer was tempting, in some ways, but I couldn’t guarantee that I could keep my promise (nor did I completely trust him to keep his). He’s still here, and our fiscal situation continues to erode.

(This wasn’t just a lack of nerve. The precedent, once established, would be toxic.)

To my mind, this is the slam-dunk argument for a mandatory retirement age. If I know, at the start of a year, that I have at least (say) five professors retiring, I can start to plan. As it is, I can only guesstimate. They might go, they might not. And since salary is mostly a function of seniority, the ones who extend their stay at the end cost the most.

(Last year, I asked HR to check some figures. They reported that we have more f-t faculty over 65 than under 40. Since then, the ratio has worsened.)

I’ve argued upwards for ‘trip wires’ for individual departments and programs: set (at least internally) acceptable minima for each area, and authorize replacements when those levels are threatened. The response I keep getting, which is frustrating for being true, is that we need the savings now, and we need them wherever we can get them. If a particular program has to take it on the chin, that’s a shame, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So we go careening past my trip wires in some areas, while others remain fully staffed with some very senior, tenured people. And the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, has ensured that I can’t do anything about it.

Sorry, no clever conclusion to this one. Just an increasing sense of frustration.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Back to the Land?

A new correspondent mentioned, in passing, that his college has employed relatively few adjuncts (even though the provost wanted to go more in that direction) because it’s rural. The available pool of adjuncts is thin, so the only way to cover classes reliably is with full-timers.

Gotta admit, I never thought of that. It makes perfect sense.

Some ed.d. student out there could do a nifty dissertation on the relationship between adjunct-ification and geography. Once you leave the urban and affluent suburban regions, does the adjunct trend dissipate?

The two schools I’ve deaned at have both been in affluent, educated suburbia, so there has been no shortage of willing and capable adjuncts. (Educated trailing spouses of high-earning execs make great adjuncts and lab assistants.) Certainly I’d expect no major difficulties finding adjuncts in major cities, either. But in cow country? Hmm.

I wonder if, ironically enough, the vast swath of Red America is actually less hospitable to this particular version of outsourcing than educated, densely populated Blue America. That would certainly help explain the preponderance of “Help! My Job is in the Middle of Nowhere!” blogs and letters in the Chronicle.

Thanks, new correspondent. I never thought of that. Suburban blindness strikes again…

Thursday, June 02, 2005

To Blog, Perchance to Meme...

Adjunct Kait tagged me with the “If I could be” meme. The game is: pick five sentence starters from the list, then pass it along to three people:

The list:

If I could be a scientist…If I could be a farmer…If I could be a musician…If I could be a doctor…If I could be a painter…If I could be a gardener…If I could be a missionary…If I could be a chef…If I could be an architect…If I could be a linguist…If I could be a psychologist…If I could be a librarian…If I could be an athlete…If I could be a lawyer…If I could be an innkeeper…If I could be a professor…If I could be a writer…If I could be a llama-rider…If I could be a bonnie pirate…If I could be an astronaut…If I could be a world-famous blogger…If I could be a justice on any one court in the world…If I could be married to any current famous political figure…

My responses:

If I could be a musician…probably a Paul Westerberg type, with less dysfunction. I’d love to be able to churn out catchy, shambolic pieces of wisdom that sound good in a bar. The ultimate would be touring with (and probably opening for) Kristin Hersh (or any of her various bands) – a married mother of four with some of the most interesting songwriting out there. (Typical KH lyric: “like frat boys who sleep together/we party better/all the world loves a lover.” Okaaay…) We could do a Rock the Suburbs tour. “Hello, Shaker Heights!”

A duet with Liz Phair on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” might be fun…

If I could be an athlete…a corner infielder, in the Robin Ventura mold. I’d be the laconic one who drew a lot of walks.

If I could be a professor…the beloved sage at a liberal arts college. Tweed, elbow patches, the whole bit. Lots of small seminars, great students, periodic public speaking engagements at which I wouldn’t even think of using PowerPoint.

If I could be a writer…a columnist for some sort of opinion journal. Honestly, blogging is my approximation of that, only without the pay. Having readers would definitely up the ‘cool’ factor. As would a salary. Once the readership gets large enough, I could publish a series of autobiographies. The first would be called I’m Finally Published! The follow-up would be Bite Me!: A Response to my Critics.

If I could be a justice on any one court in the world…I would make Antonin Scalia my personal bitch. “I’ll show you what strict construction means…”

Tagging: Harvey, Danigirl, and timna.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

From Gold Brick to Golden Parachute

The June 3 issue of the Chronicle has a must-read cover story on the aging of full-time faculty. Simply put, the combination of lifetime tenure and the repeal of mandatory retirement means that nobody is leaving. The f-t faculty just ages in place, while younger scholars are frozen out of full-time employment.

I laughed out loud at a line from the token young professor in a very mature department:

“During the daily lunches, he says, his colleagues often bring up the subject of colonoscopies or talk about some provost from the 1970’s.”

Solidarity, brother.

The story is dead-on, yet oddly incomplete. It never mentions salaries, for example – if you replace a cohort at the top of the scale with a cohort at the bottom, a lot of fiscal issues simply go away. Replace someone over 100k with someone in the 40’s, multiply that by a dozen or two positions, and it adds up.

Strikingly, the article quotes a dean of a research university arguing for early-retirement packages, offered on a case-by-case basis. That way, a college can hold on to its stars, while clearing the deadwood.

(Insert Jon Stewart-esque raised eyebrow, tie adjustment here.)

I pity the poor fool who inherits the deanship next. Once word gets out among the 50 and 60 somethings (who are the majority!) that the way to a nice package is through underperformance, all is lost. Good luck getting anybody – anybody – to do anything. From gold brick to golden parachute. Your tax dollars at work!

Only someone who has never worked in a bottom-line environment could advocate something this horrifyingly stupid. It’s one thing to offer packages to the faculty as a whole, with certain bright-line qualifiers: x years of service, etc. That’s fine, and there are times in which it makes sense fiscally (though I’m still not sold on it, morally). The ever-present risk is that the stars will take it, while the deadwood will linger. But to punish the stars and reward the deadwood would be exactly wrong, and it would poison the well for a generation to come.

In the spirit of reality, let me offer the profession a compromise: we can keep tenure, or we can keep open-ended retirement ages, but not both. The consequences of keeping both are staggering, and we’re only beginning to see them. When the boomers pass 70, we’ll all go broke.

Breathtaking. Absolutely breathtaking.