Monday, April 19, 2010

Ask the Administrator: The Paradox of Good Citizenship

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

I'm in a humanities dept. at a very good SLAC. One of our faculty members is retiring soon, and so our departmental meetings have been focusing (in ten-minute snatches, unfortunately....despite meeting WEEKLY) on arguing for his replacement and determining what curricular lacunae might best be covered by this new person.

My sense is that, while we could use some coverage in the area of the retired person (and in related areas he didn't cover), our enrollments do not justify it. Indeed, I think skipping the hire might 'right-size' us in relation to student demand. The #1 most-mentioned course the person could teach (let's call it 21st century art), could in fact be taught decently (though not expertly) by a # of us in the dept. OTOH, it would be great to liven up the joint with a real live scholar and hu's presence might have cross-fertilization potential w/other classes we offer.

Like every college, we were hit hard by the economic crisis. We're still determining where to cut (continued salary freeze vs. increased enrollment or 'temporary' courseload increase, etc). Several people in the department feel that we should just request what we "need" and let higher-ups decide whether it's reasonable in this fiscal environment. While I get that, I also think it's our responsibility to demonstrate that "need" in concrete terms. It would be nice, for example, for the college to give us some ballpark FTE -to-students-served ratio. Or something like that. My question, then, is what figures do we use to gauge our need? We have a fairly generous leave policy, so actual FTE per term or year fluctuates.

I'm frustrated that I have no clear way to gauge my department's relative efficiency, and no way to know how it compares (or whether it even SHOULD be comparable ---maybe bio and chem work differently, and it's fine that we have smaller classes) to others in the college. Moreover, some people are operating from the "the college is more or less o.k" budget perspective while others think aggressive cuts are in our medium-term future (say, 10 years). How do I know who's Chicken Little and who's Ms. Informed? How does one act as a good citizen of the college as well as the department in the absence of clear guidelines for planning?

I really struggled with this one. Because depending on local context, you could easily get punished for doing the right thing.

If you decide to go without in the name of fiscal responsibility, it's entirely likely that some other, more aggressive department will get the position instead. If their 'merit' was less than yours, you could wind up with thinned ranks and nothing to show for it. Worse, when the across-the-board cuts come, you'd be hit just as hard as your more profligate counterparts.

On the other hand, it's true that until there's some thoughtful discussion of what we really can do without, we'll never get the economics right. Just off the top of my head, I can rattle off at least a dozen departments at my college that could easily use additional full-time faculty, and I can rattle off another dozen or so glaring needs on the staff side. In that kind of setting, requests that fall under the "well, it might be nice..." category are noise pollution at best, and criminally wasteful at worst. That's not the fault of the people who propose them, though.

What's missing here, I think, is a clear understanding of how to define relative need. That's probably the place to start.

At my college, we've developed an okay-but-not-great mechanism for allocating faculty positions. The VP sets some baseline criteria, which include things like ft/adjunct ratios in a given area, accreditation requirements for programs with special accreditations, and foreseeable programmatic changes. A few weeks later, the various deans come back with the strongest proposals from their own areas, and they present their arguments to each other using those criteria. Then they (and the vp) vote, and the priority ranking is established. The college goes as far down the list as the budget will allow. (A similar forced-ranking process occurs on the staff side, with the various vp's doing the voting. The President decides how many faculty vs. staff positions get funded.)

It's grossly reductive, but at least the forced ranking compels some level of honesty. Yes, I know your seven positions are all absolutely crucial, but if you can only have two, which two would they be? Moving the discussion from absolute need to relative need takes a lot of the posturing out of it, and takes the onus off the departments to decide whether to be good sports or to press for everything they could get. If the criteria are fairly clear, then the departments can judge in advance whether they have a potentially persuasive claim or not.

If you don't know your college's criteria, the first step might be to ask the dean. If the criteria don't exist, then I could see a strong argument for developing some. If they exist but they don't make sense (i.e. administrative favoritism, blind adherence to tradition, etc.), then there's an argument for changing them. If they exist but the departments don't know about them, then there's an argument for making them known. Admittedly, this is one step removed from solving the immediate problem -- for the record, in the very short term I'd say go for it and let the chips fall where they may -- but it would improve the chances of healthier allocations over time.

In many cases, I'm told, the 'criteria' consist of a blend of opportunism, favoritism, and buying off the loudest complainers. If any of that sounds familiar, then starting a campus conversation about criteria could be a very healthy exercise. Whether it solves the immediate problem or not, it may very well position the college to handle future staffing issues more thoughtfully, and/or more congruently with the sense of the community.

What I wouldn't recommend doing is internalizing blame for your administration's failure to make criteria clear. Based on my own experience, I'd guess that it's operating on the old "we have x positions, let's see who makes the best argument" strategy. That's not your fault. Take the shot, but use the moment as an opportunity to start a much larger, and badly needed, conversation.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I'm sure some of you have faced variations on this. Any hard-won lessons to share?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.