Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No More Spring Scrambles

This year, we're trying something different.

As many a frustrated academic knows, there's a hiring season for full-time faculty. Broadly speaking, it starts in October and runs through about February for tenure-track positions, and starts in January and runs through April or May for one-year positions. (The preferred term for those is usually “visiting,” though that seems a polite fiction at this point.)

Unfortunately, the hiring season doesn't align well with budgets. So we've often had to trail the calendar, looking in the late spring or even early summer for tenure-track positions. At that point, convincing people to relocate is an uphill battle, and many of the candidates who stand out in the early running get snapped up by other places.

Although we've been aware of the issue for years, it has been hard to get ahead of the curve. That's because the budget is fully spoken for, so new positions only become available when current faculty leave. The budget supports x number of full-time faculty. Most of the time, we have x number; the only way to hire is through replacement, even if the replacement isn't necessarily in the same department.

(As awful as that sounds, even that is only possible because we've systematically thinned the ranks of administration. If we hadn't done that, we'd be at x-5 by now.)

The calendar wouldn't be an issue if people submitted retirement letters in September to take effect the following May, and if those letters were irrevocable. But neither is the case. Some people here have submitted retirement letters annually for the last several years, only to revoke them in the winter or early spring. Every time they do that, they reinforce the folly of starting searches when the rest of the world does. Without the funds freed up by their retirement, new hires simply can't happen. But it's politically impossible to make retirement letters irrevocable, and mandatory – and therefore predictable – retirement remains off the table.

Last year a surprising number of people left, some of them waiting until late in the year to give notice. There just wasn't time to put together reasonable searches to replace them.

So this year, we're trying something different. And no, it doesn't involve a visit from the money fairy, who is apparently being held hostage somewhere in the Goldman Sachs building.

Instead of frantically throwing together a search at the last possible minute and hoping for the best, we're carrying openings for a year so we can join the standard search calendar. So someone who quit in May of 2011, say, will be replaced in September of 2012. We'll cover the classes with adjuncts for a year, and use that year to do a search the way it should be done. If we make the offer early enough in the cycle, we might stand a better chance of convincing our first choice candidates to move here, if they need to. (Over the past few years, first choices have been about evenly divided between local and non-local, though many of the non-local first choices wound up turning us down.)

It's not an ideal solution, admittedly. It increases, if slightly, our already uncomfortably high adjunct percentage. But when positions are finite and people can change their minds about leaving until the last minute, the options aren't great. We could do what some colleges do and just plow ahead with searches anyway, canceling them when people rescind their letters, but that tends to leave a bitter taste all around. Not only is it brutally unfair to the candidates, but it also burns out the members of the search committee who conclude, understandably, that their efforts were wasted. Do that a couple of times, and good luck getting people to serve on committees again.

Some places fill the one-year gap with one-year hires, and we've done that intermittently, but the culture doesn't handle it well. No matter how many times you emphasize that it's a one-year appointment, people interpret the non-renewal at the end as being fired. Worse, the culture tends to assume that unless the temporary hire is an axe murderer, she has first dibs on the permanent position. At that point, the integrity of the permanent search is badly compromised.

I'm not thrilled with this solution, but it seems to me the best we can do under the circumstances. If we could make retirement letters irrevocable, we could hire right away, but that's not gonna happen. If mandatory retirement returned, then we wouldn't even need letters; we'd just know, and we could move forward. If the money fairy paid a visit, we could chance the occasional double coverage and call it good. And if the culture didn't have such a strong belief in 'dibs,' we could at least patch with short-term hires. But at least this way we'll have a shot at the very best people for these jobs, which is, after all, the point. No more spring scrambles; this year, we do it right.