Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How It Is Not Done

As one of the few academic administrators who blogs, I frequently find myself trying to shed light on how an administrative move that may seem strange or silly from the outside actually makes sense from the inside.  My goal in doing that is to clear away useless myths to make possible a more intelligent and useful discussion as a sector about the challenges we all face, and how best to handle them.

And then there’s Quinnipiac.  

Quinnipiac ordered its deans to come up with sixteen faculty layoffs in two days, at the same time that it’s doing searches for a dozen new faculty in different areas.  Broadly speaking, the cuts are mostly in the liberal arts, and the growth is mostly in professional areas.

I won’t address the shift of academic focus.  Sometimes that has to happen, and I’m capable of believing that a strategic shift may make sense.  

But this is not how you do it.  As an academic administrator, I’m embarrassed.  

This is the kind of hamfisted, capricious, secretive approach that feeds every hateful myth.  It will set back useful discussion for years.  

A shift of strategic focus isn’t something you pull off in a week.  It’s something that unfolds over time, with public discussion and probably some drama.  I’m not opposed to a college picking winners and losers -- you can’t do a resource shift without the resources coming from someone -- and it’s to be expected that the losers will not go quietly into that good night.  The pushback can get ugly; that’s part of the process.  

But you don’t short-circuit the process like that and expect good things to happen.  

I have been a dean who had to evaluate people for layoffs.  When I was at DeVry, I personally had to lay off a productive person whose only crime was being the last hired.  This is not a theoretical issue. There is a way to do it.  This is not it.

The first thing you do, after assessing the situation and determining that layoffs are fiscally necessary, is come up with decision rules and processes.  (I’ll leave aside the “fiscal exigency” issue, since it appears at first blush that none of the Quinnipiac layoffs were of people who had tenure.  I’m open to correction on this.)  What criteria will you use?  How will you document your decisions?  If someone challenges you in court based on protected class membership in something, how will you defend yourself?  Hint: it’s much easier if you can show that you applied rational criteria fairly and thoughtfully.  That presumes the existence of criteria.

And you bundle different ranks together.  As awful as faculty layoffs are, they’re somewhat less awful when they’re part of a larger package that also includes staff and administration.  One of my prouder moments at HCC came in 2009-10 when the wheels came off the state budget, and we had to do abrupt and severe cuts on campus.  I chose to reduce the number of deans to maintain the faculty at full strength.  In my estimation, it was the way to do the least harm, and to show in concrete terms that I take the importance of full-time faculty seriously.  People remember that sort of thing.

Singling out faculty to take all of the cuts leaves a bitter, bitter taste.  

Layoffs and shared governance don’t go together well, since nobody will vote themselves off the island.  But some basic level of transparency is essential if you want to maintain a sense in the larger faculty that you aren’t just making decisions based on personal likes, or political connections, or whatever racial/gender/demographic category seems to stick out.  

I would be shocked if these weren’t challenged legally.  The circumstances practically demand it.

Upon challenge, Quinnipiac will probably have to backtrack and/or pay significant compensation, on top of whatever legal fees it will face.  This is the price of thoughtless haste.  

If I were to put on my Machiavellian hat, I would guess that the shortened timeframe was chosen specifically to deprive any on-campus opposition of oxygen.  By the time folks have processed the information, the thinking goes, it would be a fait accompli.  But that assumes that the end of the academic year is the end of the issue.  It isn’t.  Courts don’t care at all about the academic calendar.  Legal challenges can drag on for years, generating billable hours and adverse publicity all the while.

Administrators have to balance budgets, handle personnel issues, and sometimes be the bad guys.  That comes with the gig.  But how you do those things matters.  Acting so arbitrarily conveys a strong impression that the decisions themselves were arbitrary.  People remember that sort of thing, too.

My free advice to my counterparts at Quinnipiac: roll it back.  Admit that you overshot, and put together a serious process on campus to make strategic decisions next year.  Either that, or get some very, very good lawyers.