Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rights of Return

I just got an email from a reader who has tenure at hir current college, but is considering a deanship at another college which will not bring tenure with it. S/he asked about the absence of a right of return to faculty in an administrative role.

Regular readers know I'm not a fan of tenure. At its base, the objection is ethical: I don't believe that anybody should be unaccountable for performance. (And spare me the flaming based on hair-splitting. In the real world, tenure raises the cost of accountability to such comical heights that it's effectively prohibitive.) However, I'm also enough of a realist to know that a systemic shift to something more defensible would have to come from the outside, so I don't address the issue locally. There's nothing to be gained by doing that, so I don't. I'd probably be run out of town on a rail -- this in the name of academic freedom, ironically enough -- and it couldn't work one college at a time. In the meantime, I make periodic arguments on the blog for a long-term renewable contract system and hope for the best. But while I concede the political argument, I remain utterly unpersuaded on the ethics.

The ethical objection is far worse when the faculty have tenure and administrators don't. At that point, the lack of accountability on one side easily becomes a weapon against the other. The structural incentive to sabotage anything unpopular by simple foot-dragging is so powerful that it would be surprising if it didn't happen. Anybody who has watched department meetings knows that academics are incredibly good at foot-dragging. And anybody who says that sabotage-by-foot-dragging never happens simply doesn't know what s/he's talking about. It does. It defined several years of my career.

So there's a conundrum. On the one hand, simple reciprocity demands that if faculty have job security, administrators should, too. Fair is fair. On the other, guaranteeing a right of return could lead to some very weird staffing imbalances over time, and could put people in classes they haven't taught in years. Failed Administrators Returning to Teaching -- FARTs -- may or may not be the best candidates for open teaching gigs; when they aren't, the students suffer. And job security in administrative roles as administrative roles -- not a right of return, but a deanship for life -- is such an obviously bad idea that I sometimes wonder why people don't draw the obvious inferences.

My preferred solution -- contracts for all -- cuts the Gordian knot cleanly and elegantly, but most campuses aren't quite ready for that yet. So the conundrum persists.

In my experience, many of the people who protest the loudest against administrative salaries also protest the loudest against rights of return, and they don't notice the contradiction. If moving into administration requires giving up tenure, and tenure has economic value, then it's perfectly reasonable to expect to be compensated for its loss. If you don't compensate for the loss, I'd expect to see very few people give it up. (When I propose a contract system for faculty, tenured bloggers apply this point to themselves very quickly.) So my short answer is, if you have to give up tenure to get the deanship, get a salary that makes the loss worthwhile. If someone carps about "bloated administrative salaries," ask how much they'd charge to give up tenure themselves.

(There is another option, of course: stop drawing administrators from faculty ranks altogether. Set up a completely separate career track, and have people choose one or the other at the outset. I'd argue that this option is completely insane, since it would lead to decisions that are completely out of touch with the classroom, but it's at least conceptually possible.)

So no, I don't have a solution that's both clean and politically possible. Good luck with your decision, though. These things would be a lot easier if the system were more rational.