Tuesday, October 11, 2005


I recently attended a conference of academic administrators from around my state, and discovered that an organizational quirk of my school is actually widespread. We add programs frequently, and call it responsiveness, but we almost never eliminate programs. (My school has eliminated a grand total of one, and that was in the 1980’s.) Zombie programs walk among us, feasting on the resources of the living.

Zombie programs survive largely because of tenure. At my college (and many others), tenure is with the college, rather than with the department. That means that if we eliminate a program, we’re obligated to find alternate jobs for the people who used to work in it, assuming they’re qualified. (For example, most of the IT department can teach math, so if we eliminated the IT department, the tenured faculty would simply move to math.) Only those few who are completely unqualified for anything else get fired. As a result, the actual savings from any proposed program elimination are too small to be worth the political headache, and the zombies stick around.

I wouldn’t care so much, except that zombie programs have a way of multiplying over the years. Since retirements are astonishingly slow in coming, we carry these programs for decades. They use resources that could have gone for core programs (history, English, etc.), forcing those core departments to replace retirees with adjuncts. We hollow out our profit centers (chalk-and-talk gen ed classes) to keep our zombie programs undead.

The K-12 districts have a way of handling undead employees or programs. When a superintendent leaves, the hire an ‘interim’ whose job is to be the bad guy. The interim takes out some zombies, then moves on; the next permanent person then harvests the goodwill from 1. not being the interim person and 2. presiding over growth. We haven’t done that, though there’s certainly an argument for it.

The proprietary in which I used to work had a great many flaws, but one flaw it didn’t have was undead programs. Since there was no tenure system, a program that couldn’t carry its own weight anymore simply got the ax. This freed up resources for new programs (or, more annoyingly, for stockholders). We don’t have that option, for all intents and purposes, so even in dire fiscal straits we continue to support small programs that have long since outlived their usefulness. We make up the difference by adjuncting-out ever more of the academic core.

Protecting long-term employees comes at the cost of freezing out new ones. I’d love to hire eager new Ph.D.’s in the core academic disciplines on full-time lines, but that would require killing some zombies that we just haven’t been willing to kill. So the zombies walk among us, and new Ph.D.’s keep on adjuncting, hoping someday to catch a break. And students wonder why they can’t get the classes they actually want or need.

Sometimes being the good guy requires first being the bad guy.