Monday, March 14, 2016

Mobility Looks Different From Here

Apparently, the California State University system has commissioned an “exit survey” to identify why faculty leave.  The idea is to help reduce unwanted departures and the various costs of attrition.

Faculty mobility (that is, among full-time faculty) is a very different issue in community colleges than in research universities.  

Here, the idea of “poaching superstars” is relatively rare.  Community college faculty superstars are excellent teachers who work wonders for students; that skill set is less marketable than research.  It isn’t portable in the same sense that grant-funded projects are.

In my experience, full-time faculty who leave do so for one or more of the following three reasons: a better offer, family/relationship considerations, or retirement.  In (cough) years of community college administration, I can’t recall a single time that a faculty member was poached by a peer institution for the same role.  (I can recall one in which a faculty member was actively recruited for an administrative role, but that’s a different issue.)  I’ve never heard any of my counterparts mention it, either.  From what I can tell, it’s vanishingly rare.

The “better offer” category usually applies to minority candidates, who attract offers from four-year schools with lower teaching loads and higher salaries.  I haven’t seen the poaching done by a peer institution.

If too much mobility is an issue at elite institutions, too little mobility may be an issue here.

The IHE piece presents faculty mobility as a challenge for institutions, and it can be.  But it can also be a way for someone who just isn’t happy in one setting to find another in which she can thrive.  That unhappiness could stem from any number of things: personality conflicts, geographic distance from loved ones, salary, or whatever.  But an unhappy person with tenure can be unhappy in place for a very long time.  And in a sector in which “senior hires” for faculty are very much the exception, that unhappy person may be essentially stuck.  That serves neither the professor nor the institution well.

The administrative job market is very different.  At this level, mobility is assumed; in fact, it’s pretty much a given that you have to be willing to uproot and move several times.  That can be an issue for those of us with school-aged children.  But at least it offers the possibility that if the winds shift at a given place, or if family needs change, you can test the waters.  On the faculty side, that’s not usually true.

I’m not sure if there’s a ready fix for the lack of mobility.  Good teaching isn’t unique in the sense that, say, authorship of a good book is.  Given community college budgets, the idea of regularly hiring faculty at the senior level is pretty much a non-starter, though I would love at least to have the option.  In most industries, turnover is a driver of hiring.  With tenure protecting incumbents, and no mandatory retirement age, turnover is lower, which drives hiring lower.  If we were in more of a growth mode, it might be possible to have both stability for incumbents and opportunities for mobility.  But in the mode we’re in, I don’t see it.

Strikingly, I don’t recall ever seeing a study of full-time faculty mobility at the community college level.  Does anyone know of any?  I suspect it would reach very different conclusions than the ones at the university level.  In the absence of such a study, I’d just caution against solving the wrong problem.