Most department chairs, if you press hard enough, will admit to having an Emergency Adjunct. The Emergency Adjunct is somebody who can be relied on to show up for whatever timeslot, even on short notice, and not cause trouble. The EA is typically a not-very-good teacher – if he were good, he'd be a regular – but he's just good enough to throw into that last unstaffed section without feeling irredeemably guilty about it.
At my previous school, where I had to do staffing, I had an EA I'll call Beige. Beige was uninspired, kind of shlumpy, somewhat disorganized, and only so-so with students. (His student evals ranged from below-average to you-don't-want-to-know). I saw his syllabus once, and was compelled to correct for grammar. But he had a few undeniable virtues: he would take any timeslot at all, he would show up for class faithfully, and he wouldn't do anything bad enough to warrant summary termination. He was just, well, Beige.
Since enrollments at Proprietary U were constantly changing, anomalies developed in the schedule almost every semester. One section would have to be doubled, another wouldn't fill, and we'd have to shuffle multiple schedules to make loads. Inevitably, there'd be an orphan section sitting out there, full of students and bereft of teacher. I'd do what I could do avoid it, but when all else failed and the first day of class loomed, I'd make the call to Beige.
I thought of Beige today as I was discussing a similar situation with one of my chairs. She mentioned that in the 70's and 80's they had very little need for Emergency Adjuncts, since the full-time faculty then were different. They were mostly men, mostly primary breadwinners, and mostly young. This meant that they were always eager to pick up extra sections for the extra pay. Now the men are older and better paid, the women faculty usually have husbands or partners who work, almost nobody is young, and nobody wants to pick up extra sections. Where before there was an informal bullpen, a sort of reserve army of the employed, now we need EA's.
I found her analysis trenchant and disturbing. Descriptively, I think it's on the money – I've heard plenty of the older guys say that they used to pick up extra classes when they were just starting out and their kids were younger, but they can't be bothered now. The women who were hired after them typically don't need the extra money, for various reasons, so they content themselves with regular courseloads. (There are exceptions, but fewer than I'd expect.) The youngest faculty are so badly underpaid relative to the local cost of living that the marginal increase for an extra course isn't worth the effort. So we've lost the informal bullpen.
Morally, though, it bothers me. Equality among the tenured is made possible by absolutely horrific exploitation of emergency adjuncts (and, indirectly, of the students who get the EA's sections). I could content myself with the libertarian line that EA's accept their lots voluntarily, which is true in the sense that nobody holds guns to their heads, but it seems to me that that line of reasoning can excuse a great many sins. Besides, if we assume that quality matters, and I assume it does, then a pure race to the bottom is bound to be self-defeating over time.
We don't have the slack in the budget to grant release time for makework projects and build a de facto bullpen that way, although I'd love to try it. (I actually proposed that once at Proprietary U, and was greeted with stunned silence.) As long as the high-salary, high-seniority types stick around, I don't have the openings to bring in hungry young faculty, and our entry-level salaries are so low (to subsidize the high-end ones) that we mostly get trailing spouses or folks who've lived here forever.
Some schools – NYU leaps to mind – have elaborated multiple tiers of faculty, effectively integrating the bullpen into the budget. This strikes me as vastly preferable to the EA 'system,' though the long-term threat to tenure would probably compel the faculty union to torpedo it.
Has your school found a more humane and/or effective way to fill last-minute vacancies?