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.