Monday, January 13, 2014

Ask the Administrator: Which is the Lesser Evil?

A department chair writes

I’m given a dollar amount budget to hire adjunct faculty for my department. I translate this into the number of sections I can have adjuncts teach. Ordinarily I’ve hired them to teach two courses each semester because this brings them some benefits that don’t come with one course. A relatively recent rule change allows us to hire adjuncts to teach three courses a semester, and increasingly, people are asking to teach three. I find myself struggling to decide between providing more people with two courses each and fewer people with three courses each. There are all sorts of pros and cons I can weigh, but in the end I can't see which alternative is the lesser of two evils (the evils of exploiting these people in the first place, of course).

Nope, this shouldn’t be controversial at all!

I’m not sure what “some benefits” means.  If it refers to health insurance, and you can cover it, that’s great.  For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that there’s no “benefits” payoff to the difference between two courses and three courses, other than pay.  Also for the sake of argument, I’ll just bracket the Affordable Care Act, since guidance on the employer mandate in this context remains elusive.  And let’s just stipulate upfront that you’d rather have full-timers if you could afford to.  That’s true of nearly every department chair I’ve ever known.  (The only exception was one who had trouble finding full loads for all of his people.)  The issue here is not “what would be ideal,” but how best to play the hand you’ve been dealt.

So what it really comes down to is a greater per-person benefit for fewer people, or a smaller per-person benefit for more people.  For the sake of argument, let’s say you have twelve sections to cover.  Do you give four people three sections each, or six people two sections each?

This is where you have to think like a manager.  

Your first obligation is to cover the classes with good instructors.  Experienced chairs and deans know that entails more than just covering the classes; it also means having enough slack in the system that if someone goes down, the world doesn’t come caving in.  This isn’t just hypothetical; unplanned, abrupt absences -- usually medical -- happen more often than you might think.  

If you schedule your people to their absolute limits, and then someone gets sick, you’re defenseless.  The people you turned away will likely have found other things to do by that point, and you won’t have anyone who can step in.  From a student perspective, this is a catastrophe.

If you keep a little bit of slack in the system, by contrast, you’ll have the option of adding a section to each of several different people if someone goes down.  You’ll have a deeper bench.

The “deeper bench” argument assumes, of course, that you have enough good adjuncts around that you could spread the courses a little more broadly and still be confident that the students are getting good instruction.  In other words, if the four people to whom you’d give three sections each are very good, but adjuncts five and six are terrible, then you’re better off sticking with three sections each and hoping for the best.  Better to risk weak instruction than to guarantee it.  But if adjuncts five and six are also good -- which is often the case in evergreen disciplines -- then I’d go with the deeper bench.  

The obvious rejoinder is that the adjuncts who are asking for additional sections presumably have good reasons for wanting them.  But it’s not clear to me why Bob’s claim to a third section should trump Dave’s claim to a first one.  Assuming that there’s no clear reason to favor Bob over Dave, I’d go with a more even spread to at least capture the gain of a safety net.

Before the inevitable flaming, I’ll concede that it would be preferable to just hire all full-timers and be done with it.  But for various reasons, that’s often unrealistic.  Chairs have to make choices like these all the time.  Given that, I’d rather have some sort of theory behind the choices than just going with personal favoritism, rewarding the squeaky wheel, or adopting an arbitrary rule just to avoid the pain of thinking.

There’s nothing pretty about these choices, but they have to be made.  

Good luck.  I hope you’re able to find a solution that makes sense in your context.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Does the “deep bench” argument make sense, or is there a better -- and still realistic -- way?

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