Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Creating Emergencies

“Professor X is out next semester, and nobody else can teach his classes. We need to make a hire!”

Well, wait a minute.

The culture of my college, and of many others, has included a strong presumption in favor of whomever is in the room at the time. If you hire someone as a one-semester replacement, and a tenure-track line opens in that area, there’s a widespread (and, to my mind, unwise) assumption that the temp will get it. So emergency hires frequently become the full-time staff.

This is a terrible idea on multiple levels.

What you’re looking for in an emergency fill-in and what you’re looking for in a permanent hire are two different things. With the former, you want a good sport who’s ready to work and who will generally play well with others. Professional development, if any, is strictly a footnote. In a permanent hire, someone who shows no inclination for professional development is a disaster waiting to happen. So someone who might make a great temp might not be a great full-timer.

On another level, establishing an ‘audition period’ prior to hire as an informal but widespread expectation pretty much guarantees inbreeding. People won’t move for one-semester tryouts. So your temps will be local products, probably from the same few graduate programs that produced most of your current staff. It also extends the ‘apprenticeship’ period, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is already intolerably long. Graduate school is the apprenticeship, if anything is (and its claim to that is rapidly eroding).

Even more basically than that, you don’t make long-term decisions on short-term considerations. A tenure-track hire will be with you for several years at a minimum, and possibly several decades. Making a decision about that based on the convenience of a single semester is simply irresponsible.

Depending on the size of the department or program, requests like these will sound different. In a tiny department or program, I wouldn’t expect a deep bench. If someone is out, gaps in coverage are to be expected. In a large department, though, I would expect a competent chair to have developed his people enough to ensure at least some cross-coverage, especially for the basic courses. If, say, a Psych chair has a department of 15 faculty and complains that he doesn’t have anyone to teach General Psychology, I can only assume that he’s either lying or flagrantly incompetent. When a department has more than a dozen faculty, I should be able to assume some level of backup for the intro courses. If not, they haven’t hired right, and I’m not going to reward that.

Some departments that think themselves savvy have developed a habit of creating emergencies to get what they want. Withhold key information until something explodes, then use the explosion to argue that this is no time for the usual time-consuming process and we need to hire the favored candidate right now. Apparently, this worked in the past, with a previous administration. (As John Belushi put it in Animal House: “There’s a time for thinking, and a time for acting. And this is no time for thinking!”)

Breaking that habit is an ugly process. Saying ‘no’ to an emergency hire comes off as the height of arrogance, as unspeakably cold, etc. But it has to be done. Full-time faculty positions are far too few and far between to waste on pet mediocrities; I won’t be railroaded out of doing a real search by some contrived drama. Until they figure out that the rules have changed, departments will stick with the behavior that worked in the past, and simply ratchet it up when it doesn’t work. So the short term is ugly, with charges and countercharges and escalating drama and frantic searches for adjuncts. But it’s the right long term move.

Steady as she goes...