Thursday, February 04, 2016

Thoughts on Cluster Hiring

A few days ago, IHE had a story about UC Riverside’s efforts to move to a “cluster hiring” strategy for hiring faculty. It sounds like they’ve had a bumpy ride, with one initiative trying to serve a host of different goals.  All politics is local, so I’ll stay out of the particulars of that one, but having seen the aftermath of a cluster-hiring binge, I can offer some thoughts on it generally.

Cluster hiring is the practice of concentrating hires in one or a few departments or areas for a year, as opposed to spreading hires around.  

It has its virtues.  

For one, it helps with diversity.  When a department gets to make, say, four hires in one shot, it’s much harder for folks to object to a non-traditional candidate or two.  Everybody can get their favorite.  

Relatedly, it can help with issues of critical mass.  When a given department is entirely fifty and above, a thirty-year-old newbie can feel very much on the spot.  But when that newbie has a few counterparts starting at the same time, she isn’t so isolated.  Having a cohort can make it easier to avoid being bullied, and can shift the culture of a department that has grown a little too entrenched.  A single hire might be overwhelmed, but a group has power just through sheer numbers.  

Cluster hiring can allow a department to attain critical mass in a curricular area in one fell swoop, too.  For a college trying to start a program in a new area, a single hire might not be enough.

It can also offer ways around zero-sum conflicts.  Instead of having to choose among the loyal long-serving adjunct, the minority candidate with a new degree, and the techie who loves teaching online, why not hire all three?  For a department chair, that’s a remarkably elegant solution.

All of that said, though, I’ve seen the downsides, and they aren’t pretty.

The most obvious one is that cluster hiring only works if you know you’ll be able to repeat it year after year, with departments taking turns.  If the money goes away after the first or second round, you’ll be stuck with some pretty glaring imbalances among departments, and those imbalances could last a while.  I walked into that at Holyoke.  When I got there, the English department had just hired a bunch, and math was waiting its turn.  Then the money went away.  Although the FTE’s were similar, English had twenty full-timers while math had ten.  It took me years to get back to something more balanced, adding one or two at a time to math as the opportunity arose.  In the meantime, the strain on the math department was considerable.

If money is inconstant, better to spend it more evenhandedly while it’s there.  Otherwise, you can get frozen in a bad spot for years.

Cluster hiring can also lead to internal resentment.  “You have enough money for them to get five new people, but I’m down two positions in two years?”  Unless the money fairy dropped by -- and she has been seriously slacking for some time now -- you cobble together a cluster for one area by shaving positions from a bunch of others, usually by attrition.  If those other areas are already struggling, which many of them probably are, then you’re hurting a lot of people to please a few.  Do not take that lightly.

Finally, and I know some people don’t want to hear this, the fifth hire in a batch often isn’t quite as strong as the first.  I’ve seen plenty of searches where we wished we could have hired the top two instead of the top one; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one where we wished we could have hired the top five.  Given the scarcity of funding for full-time positions, I’m not a fan of hiring the fifth-best for one area while starving out other areas entirely.  I’d bet that if a department hired five people in one year, the average quality would be lower than if it hired one person a year for five years.  Measured strictly by attrition, that has been true.  And in the meantime, the multiple other areas that would have been starved for years would be able to hire the best, too.  

I get the temptation for cluster hiring, and under some very narrow and specific circumstances, I could be persuaded.  But unless you know the money will flow for years, nobody is shorthanded, and you can’t achieve diversity any other way, I’m skeptical.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you ever seen it done right?  Is there a way around the “imbalances frozen in amber” problem?