Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cluster Hiring

A few years ago, during the brief window when there was money, a few colleges engaged in 'cluster hiring.' As I've heard the term used, it refers to allocating new faculty positions in clumps, rather than spreading them evenly around. Giving three lines at the same time to sociology, while telling psychology to hold its horses, would be an example.

I've never tried it myself -- those moments of actual money have been remarkably few and far between in my experience -- but I'll admit being fascinated by the concept. As near as I can figure, the arguments for cluster hiring are several:

First, it's much likelier to effect real cultural change in a department that needs it. Bringing one new hire into a department every few years is much less likely to shift the culture than bringing on several in one shot. In my estimation, this is, by far, the best argument in its favor. Some departments grow stale over time, especially if they've shrunk by attrition over the years. In those contexts, it's possible for the 'new kid' to be the one who has only been there ten years. (I've actually seen this.) When a department gets too backwards-looking, bringing in a single new person is unlikely to matter much. Bringing in a clearly-defined new cohort, though, can actually shake things up. That can work both ways, of course, but if the status quo is bad enough, it can be a risk worth taking.

Second, and somewhat related, affirmative action is much easier to practice when you have multiple hires at once. Instead of those awful, no-win battles between "the one they really want" and "the diversity hire," you can get both. (I'll grant without argument that these are sometimes the same person. But sometimes they aren't.) I'm not saying that's right or wrong; I'm just saying that pragmatically, it makes successful compromise far easier.

Third, it gives the new kid/s allies. Having a cohort can lessen the sense of isolation or freakishness. This can be especially important when the department has a habit of sloughing off the most time-consuming service work on the junior members.

All of those granted, though, I'm still a bit skeptical.

First, there's the basic fact of economic cycles. If you were reasonably confident that you could hire a few clusters every year, then "taking turns" can make sense. But if you only get a meaningful number of hires once every five or ten years, blowing them all on one or two departments pretty much guarantees starving out everybody else. I've been through enough downturns now to know that counting on multiple, consecutive bounteous years is a fool's errand. The next time we're actually able to hire in meaningful numbers, the backlog of departments needing people is so long that bestowing the lion's share on any one (or two) would constitute something between favoritism and insanity.

Second, the pig-in-a-python model leads to predictable and difficult issues down the line. Many of the staffing issues facing higher ed now stem from an unintentional pig-in-a-python hiring pattern, in which the huge group hired in the 60's slowly makes its way to the end. Replicating that model on a micro level now will replicate those issues on a micro level later. In my observation, the most successful departments tend to have a range of career stages in them at the same time, so the experienced folks can mentor the newbies, and the newbies can keep the veterans from getting too complacent (or bitter). Too much sameness isn't good.

Third, there's quality. In some disciplines, it may be easy enough to get one or two good hires in a given year, but more than that involves some stretching. (The evergreens are mostly immune to this, but it holds true in some specialized areas.) If new 'lines' are distributed across the curriculum, you can be pretty confident that the batting average will be high. Clustered in one spot, that isn't as true.

Admittedly, right now, cluster hiring is pretty much theoretical. (Hiring at all is pretty much theoretical.) But in a sense, that makes this a good time to think about it, since we can look at its merits without getting bogged down in local circumstances. In discussing it now, I'm not implicitly passing judgment on any one department.

Wise and worldly readers, have you lived through rounds of cluster hiring? If you have, are there pluses/minuses I've neglected? I'd like to get some clarity on this before it becomes relevant, so if/when it does, I'll be ready.