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...