Wednesday, February 11, 2009


We're starting to use the R word in a really serious way. Even with reducing the number of deans, we may not save enough to save every faculty job. While the dust is far from settled on next year's budget, it's pretty clear that we've blown well past our previous worst-case scenarios. Now we have to start looking at faculty retrenchment, at least on a contingency-plan basis.

This is nobody's idea of fun.

Retrenchment in a strong-union environment is a particularly blunt instrument. The faculty contract outlines some very specific rules to follow, including several years' worth of first dibs on a restored job, strict seniority protections, and rights of reassignment for faculty who have the credentials to teach in another area. While there's some room for judgment in terms of program selection, there's almost no room for judgment within a given program.

Whether it makes any sense or not, the last hired in a given area have to be the first fired.

There's a certain fairness built into that, of course. People in the early stages of careers have presumably put down shallower roots here, and have greater mobility. And there's an intuitive appeal to the idea that beyond a certain point, you shouldn't have to look over your shoulder anymore. I get that.

But an automatic 'last hired, first fired' policy has several drawbacks.

First, of course, is that it has nothing to do with quality. We've been very deliberate about hiring terrific people over the last several years, and have batted nearly a thousand. It pains me to think that we'd have to sacrifice some spectacular younger employees to continue to support some, well, less spectacular senior ones who got in when the bar was much lower, or who have gradually started phoning it in. From a student-centered perspective, that's exactly backward.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'm not saying that all younger or newer employees are better than all senior ones. I'm just saying that 'quality' and 'seniority' are not the same thing, and that when they conflict, I'm forced to choose the wrong one.)

Second, in a unionized setting, the newest employees tend to be the cheapest. By definition, letting them go gets you less bang for the buck. This means you have to fire more of them to make up the difference.

Third, the youngest cohort is by far the most diverse. Going after that group would undo years' worth of difficult recruitment, and would push our faculty even farther out of line with our rapidly changing student demographics.

Finally, some senior employees could reframe retrenchment as retirement. I don't know many thirty-year-olds who have that option, and the likelihood of them finding a good academic job in this market, right now, is negligible. The flip side of 'shallow roots' is 'no financial cushion.' These folks have student loans, young children, and housing costs that don't reflect what things cost in the seventies.

All of that said, though, the contract is the contract. So now we get to start looking at the various programs and trying to decide what to throw overboard. There's no obviously correct way to do that.

It would be lovely if we had a program with dying enrollments, high costs, minimal employment and transfer prospects, and a few expensive faculty. But we don't. In this environment, fruit doesn't hang that low for very long before getting picked.

Every program has a constituency. Every adverse employment action will trigger accusations, grievances, lawsuits, and political battles. External groups who have no intention of picking up any of our costs will rake us over the coals for doing what we have to do. I'll get accused of having an 'agenda,' of harboring a secret plan, and of not listening to input. It won't be true, but that won't stop it.
Desperate people will grasp at straws, and give not a whit about collateral damage.

I'm not looking for sympathy. From the perspective of, say, a struggling adjunct, it would be easy to lob the usual grenades at a statement like this. It also wouldn't help.

This Spring won't be easy for anyone who cares about education, or fairness, or the people who will lose their jobs. There are better and worse ways to carry these things out, but at the end of the day, someone is losing a livelihood. There's really no good way to do that.