Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Foolproof Recruiting Tool We Don’t Have

So endowed chairs are a “foolproof recruiting tool.”  I’ll take the Chronicle’s word for it.

In thirteen years (!) of community college administration, I’ve never hired a professor at a senior level.  I suspect I never will.  

Universities, and some four-year colleges, have “endowed chair” positions that allow for senior hires.  Endowed chairs come with both money and prestige, and are designed to recruit superstars from other places.  The idea is to raise the profile of the university, thereby making it easier to attract both grants and top students.  

I’ve never seen or heard of a community college doing that.  

The obvious reason is cost; given how much tighter our budgets are than everyone else’s, spending outsize sums on one person would be a tough sell.  We don’t typically have major research operations, and students typically don’t pick a community college based on star power.  Location, institutional reputation, and overall climate matter more.  The incentive to recruit the high-powered scholar of Abstract Studies just isn’t there.

But that’s not the whole picture.  Part of the problem is that research output is easier to compare across institutions than teaching is.  That’s why graduate students preparing for the market are often told to focus ruthlessly on writing.  Research carries a market value that teaching doesn’t.  If I wanted to hire a senior-level superstar history teacher, as opposed to researcher, I’m not even sure how to find one.  What distinguishes a teaching superstar from a really good teacher?  Can I document it to a sufficient level to justify the pay differential?

One unhappy consequence of the lack of senior faculty hiring at this level is that tenured people are basically stuck.  If they decide they’d rather be somewhere else, for whatever reason, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to find the same job at the same salary elsewhere.  The same job elsewhere would require starting over again, with an entry-level salary.  The “paying dues” clock would restart.

People leave, of course.  In some fields, they bolt for industry.  Sometimes they follow spouses or prospective spouses.  Sometimes they take administrative jobs, where the market is either less secure or less trapped, depending on your perspective.  Occasionally they pick up a new line of work entirely.  I once had a math professor leave to become a full-time wood carver.  I admired his panache and wished him well.

But to a greater degree than in nearly any other industry, leaving has to involve either career change or salary cut.  Here, there’s no such thing as a bidding war for an English professor.

Administratively, that’s a mixed blessing.  At one level, it means not having to compete with higher salaries elsewhere.  Although I think the faculty here are outstanding, I don’t lay awake at night worrying about them being poached or raided.  That’s not how this works.  And not bringing in new people at dramatically higher salaries means not having to have awful conversations about salary compression, which is fine by me.  

But it also means that some people who would really rather be someplace else, can’t be.  Instead, they just stick around, getting a little bit crankier every year.  Tenured positions become golden handcuffs.  You can leave, but only at considerable personal sacrifice.  Those who aren’t in a position to make that sacrifice, don’t.  

In a more perfect world, good teachers would be sufficiently coveted that the better ones would have more options after they had established themselves.  But as it is, in this sector, they pretty much don’t.  And given the state of operating budgets, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’m not opposed to trying the foolproof recruiting tool at a community college; for that matter, if there are any interested donors out there who’d like to endow a chair, I’m happy to take their call.  But for now, it just doesn’t describe this world.  Apparently, we’re not foolproof.