I Used To Believe in Renewal

I just saw another tweet scroll by commenting on how tenure-track jobs are scare because older profs are hanging onto their jobs. Whether that’s because they believe they need to (to build up their pensions, etc.) or simply because they can (people are staying healthier longer and mandatory retirement’s mostly disappeared) isn’t the issue, here. It’s the belief that if only these older professors retired that new jobs would open up that has me shaking my head because from what I’ve seen in the last seven or eight years, it’s simply not true. At least not at most institutions. Sure, some of the rich privates and elite publics have healthy endowments, but even they’re playing by new rules these days.

Don’t get me wrong: there used to be a time when departments and programs could count on faculty renewal. Professor A retires or departs, leaving the department short one [insert faculty specialty here]. Department files a request with the dean to conduct a search to hire a new [insert faculty specialty here] in order to sustain the program. Permission is granted, a job ad is drafted: applications are received, assessed, etc. Soon, Professor B is part of the department faculty and all is well. That’s a pattern that I saw operating for years, from my childhood days as a faculty brat right through into my own academic career.

These days, when a faculty member departs, all bets are off. The department puts forward a request to search for a replacement. Perhaps permission will be granted to hire sessional faculty members for the next year to cover the holes in the schedule but likely not. Departments are sagely advised that these economic times mean that nobody’s getting hired unless it’s absolutely critical and, well, their cases just aren’t that significant. After all, there’s room to add more in the distance ed courses, if worse comes to worse, or squeeze a few more into the existing courses. How many electives do you really need to offer? Can’t you cross-list a similar course in another department? Does a degree program really need so many senior seminars or freshman sections? If you only offer a few course choices, you can do the same degree program only with fewer faculty members. Somehow, the emergency staffing you’ve cobbled together becomes the new norm. The departure is never replaced: the department is diminished.

New faculty members do come along, eventually, for some programs, not all. But the sad truth is that there are no more faculty lines. Each hire is a special case and each departure is a fraught fight for those who remain. We’re all concerned with each others’ health and welfare not only out of genuine concern but also out of the morbid sense that if one of us falls there won’t be anyone to take up the work any time soon. So when people talk about currently tenured faculty blindly holding onto their jobs past a normal retirement age, cutting out the other scholars, consider also the professors who’re morbidly certain that their departure simply enables more cost savings for a financially-fragile institution.

Now we’re currently in the fortunate position to be hiring new colleagues and we’re beyond grateful but, make no mistake, we know they’re not replacements for any of the many people who’ve left us in the last half-dozen years. They’re to fulfill specific needs that won the support of everyone from the department up through the highest level of administration and that’s great. You know that there’s a real need, not just mindless tradition or entitlements driving the search. But it’s also daunting because we know the rest of us won’t live forever and when the next departure comes, it will begin the cycle of hope and stress all over again as those who remain devote a lot of time and energy to making the case that maybe the university really, seriously needs another [insert faculty specialty here].

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “I Used To Believe in Renewal

  1. Very true, and thank you for saying it so well. Since my hire (14 years ago), we’ve lost 2.5 people, and only got approval to hire 1. We’re still down 1.5 t-t, and face precisely the situation you describe. And there are no changes in thinking on the horizon, or even potential horizon.

    • J Liedl

      We’ve seen five faculty leave in the last seven years. This year we’ve been authorized to search for two new faculty who should give us an exciting new set of specializations in indigenous history. However, we’re still struggling to offer enough courses to present two entire programs, one in English, one in French, with many fewer bodies (so fewer courses, fewer options, fewer supervisory possibilities, fewer possibilities to do administration or committee work, etc., etc.).

      I’m quite in favour of the sober second thought to consider closely any possibility of replacing a faculty member who retires or departs. Sadly, most universities have gone from replacing departures as an expectation NOT to cold, hard consideration but rather to a position where the position disappears when it’s vacated and, possibly, after a few years, they might entertain a case for some sort of new hire in the affected department or program. (This might be slightly faster in the professional schools or specifically accredited programs, but, even there, it seems to be “make do for a year or two while we hold the issue under consideration”.) Financially, it may seem wise but it leaves programs at the mercy of some terribly unpredictable factors!

  2. The lump of labor fallacy is pretty prevalent. lauravanderkam.com/2012/05/lump-labor-fallacy/

    • J Liedl

      I regret not having any sort of economics training at times like these because I can see how useful that would be to reframe these discussions in a useful manner. Thanks for that link!

      • It’s never too late!

        If you want to do some self study, I strongly recommend Bob Frank’s Intermediate Microeconomics textbook as being readable and accessible and awesome. Jon Gruber’s Public Finance text is similarly good, though focused on why we have government.

  3. Pingback: link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured

  4. This has been very true at Northern Clime, too: the loss of a faculty position or several guarantees nothing but a shot at the (figurative) lottery that may net us a new line, 5 or 6 years down the road.

    • J Liedl

      In our case the lag between departures and new hires along with the entire new area of expertise means that we really did win a lottery. And, don’t get me wrong, these new hires will do great things for us (and hopefully for them). But it will also require a lot of new resources to support the new area of expertise from course development to library/research resource acquisition and so on. I suspect that the finances to make these and other new hires are predicated not only on trimming departments through departures (we always understood that new hires, at lower ranks, represented a savings) but through reduced staffing in the long term.