Monday, December 15, 2008

The One Way We Still Get to Hire...

is for grant-funded positions. But hiring for grant-funded positions is different than regular hiring.

Grant-funded positions exist in a parallel universe to the rest of the college. Since they come with their own funding lines, they're immune to hiring freezes and even layoffs. As long as the grantors keep supporting the positions, we can keep hiring (and/or replacing) as needed.

But grant-funded positions come with a self-defeating paradox. Although they usually specify a relatively rare and specialized combination of skills and qualifications, they also come with expiration dates. (This is the key difference between 'grant-funded' and 'endowed' positions.) I t can be remarkably difficult to hire people with rare and specialized skill sets, at academic salaries, for short-term jobs. This is especially true when someone leaves a grant-funded position with a relatively short time left in the grant, and the grant carries little or no prospect of renewal.

Grantors like to imagine that colleges will always transfer the positions from the grant line to the operating budget when the grant expires, and sometimes that happens. But if you do that too often, you find your college growing in ways that really don't cohere. And you wind up effectively hiring full-time staff from artificially small talent pools, which can't be good.

Grant hires can also wreak havoc with local gossip networks, since folks at large don't always know which positions are which. (A history of 'grandfathering' positions makes the distinction even harder to maintain.) Last week I was confronted by an angry academic, asking why such-and-such could hire and her area couldn't. When I replied that such-and-such's position was grant-funded, there was a puzzled silence, followed by an 'oh.' What I don't know is how many other people at the college have the same question, but didn't bother to ask. In the gossip network, that can get coded as 'administrative bloat,' with the clear (and false) implication that The Administration is hogging resources that otherwise could have gone to faculty. The nature of grants is such that if you don't use it the way the grantor wants, you don't use it at all; the money isn't fungible. (The savvier grantors even incorporate language making it difficult, if not impossible, to use grant money to displace positions you otherwise would have had to cover internally. The annoying result is that we frequently can't even share the bounty indirectly.) Had we left that position open, the faculty would have been no better off.

Grant-driven staffing can make long-term planning more difficult. It's tough to know now what will be in fashion among philanthropists several years from now. We can predict our own needs somewhat more accurately, but the two may or may not overlap. To the extent that we move opportunistically on the various RFP's as they come along, we may maximize our resources, but we give up a good deal of our ability to control our own destiny.

I won't even get into the frequent and annoying conflicts between grantors' criteria and our local union contracts. Suffice it to say, the world would be a much better place if the two groups would actually talk to each other. Far too many RFP's boil down to “here's a hundred bucks – remake your college from the ground up.” The more seriously your college takes shared governance, the worse the mismatch is, since grants usually work on deadlines that don't leave room for any sort of serious deliberative process. Anything that involves “doing things in a new way” typically involves departures from Past Practice, which means they have to be impact-bargained, in addition to being run through the local shared governance process. Yes, we could try to anticipate these and start the wheels in motion prospectively, but then the grantors would object that we were trying to find ongoing operations, and we'd lose eligibility.

None of this is meant to criticize concerned people for wanting to share resources to achieve something positive in the world; that's great, and I hope they keep doing it. But there's something to be said for not reinventing the wheel every time a new grant comes along. A few ideas:

- Drop the “no funding of ongoing operations” rule. Anything that will make a serious difference will have to be sustained over time, and cc's are chronically underfunded. Do the math. Besides, positions that don't have expiration dates will attract much more impressive applicant pools, making it likelier that we'll get the best people in the first place.

- Use deadlines that recognize the realities of union contracts, shared governance, and the like. Too often, colleges are forced to choose between ramming projects through and forgoing funding altogether. This forced urgency costs far more than it gains, over time.

- In structuring RFP's, talk to people on the ground who can explain the local realities that so often trip up the Grand Ideas. (Example: recently there's been a flurry of RFP's that share the assumption that the 'credit/non-credit' distinction is arbitrary and easily bridged. I don't know who's behind these, but whoever it is clearly lacks the foggiest idea of how higher ed actually works.)

- For the love of all that's holy and good, set aside some funding to actually hire faculty. Every grant comes with requirements for 'coordinators' and 'counselors' and 'liaisons.' Meanwhile, we're shrinking the faculty to accommodate the Incredible Shrinking Appropriation. Let's recognize reality here.

Of course, the best outcome would be operating funding of sufficient magnitude that we could actually cover what we need to cover, leaving us free to pursue only those grants that really make the most sense. Until then, I'm back to explaining to the academic side of the house why it's shrinking, even while we're hiring more liaisons.