No Rush, Really

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Everyone hurries through certain tasks. I hurry through brushing my hair sometimes in the morning if I am up late. I pay for it, mind you, with a singularly “Beethoven” look. I hurry through getting dressed, as well, and often find myself hopelessly under- or over-dressed for the weather. As all of our parents told us at one time or another, hurrying through tasks often leads to poor results. In my case, on any given hot summer day, my children come face-to-face with a long-dead German composer wearing a hooded sweatshirt and long pants. Regardless of my personal shortcomings, I encourage both of my sons to slow down and take their time when doing important tasks. Deliberation is one of the most important habits anyone can develop, I think. I’d just like to hurry up and get some.

In higher education, it can months to hire a single faculty member for a tenure-line slot. Colleges that accept public money are required by law to conduct searches with due diligence and deliberation. This does not mean higher education is a bastion of diversity. On the contrary: 30 years ago, the majority of tenured faculty were white men, and today the majority of tenured faculty are white men. However, there are significantly more women and minorities. Aside from diversity issues, there is the issue of money. A single tenure-line faculty member, on average, will cost an institution $2 million dollars over the course of an academic career.

What other reasons are there to explain why faculty searches move more slowly than molasses? The competition is stiff for one thing. In English, for instance, it is not uncommon for a department to field 150 applications for a single tenure-track opening. Sorting through all those applications by committee is a slow process. In the end, all of this explains why colleges value their tenure-line and tenured faculty so highly, and why part-time faculty are treated like so many paper plates at a picnic. The hiring process is designed to increase the odds that the department hires the best possible candidate, and so that junior faculty actually have a chance to move up the ladder into tenured and senior positions. There is turnover on the tenure-track, about one in every five tenure-line faculty does not earn tenure. However, the rigorous hiring process is designed to (ideally) guarantee faculty excellence.

I was recently sent some somewhat disturbing information. As you may know, in Washington State legislators awarded $500,000 to fund the AFT Washington’s Faculty and College Excellence program (FACE). The language of the bill did not, unfortunately, include priority hiring for part-time faculty. The money was specifically to be used for the creation of full-time faculty positions. FACE proponents were disappointed by this, but hoped to address the issue through collective bargaining. What it meant was that colleges did not have to give priority hiring preference to current part-time faculty when filling tenure-line posts created with FACE money.

We all know there are thousands of truly excellent temporary faculty out there who can, when allowed to compete on a level playing field, go head-to-head with applicants for tenure-line teaching positions. We also know that employers frequently hold long-term service as a part-time faculty member against adjuncts who apply for tenure-line positions at their current places of employment. In Washington, there are 10,000 part-time faculty. The $500,000 allocated by the legislature was distributed to 20 community colleges to create 20 new full-time positions.

The hope, of course, is that 20 part-time faculty currently teaching at community colleges in Washington State will apply for the tenure-line openings, and win the positions. According to information I was given, at one community college, a single full-time position was created with FACE funds. However, because the legislators and union officials required the 20 positions to be filled by Fall 2008, at one college it has been alleged that FACE, Faculty and College Excellence, resulted in the hiring of a tenure-line faculty member to fill a FACE-funded slot without advertising the opening, and without a formal hiring process. If this turns out to be true, not a single part-time faculty member represented by the union at the community college in question was invited to apply. It also means that the college, perhaps, broke its own equal opportunity policies, as well as state and federal equal opportunity hiring laws. If the allegations are true, college officials at this school hired for a faculty position funded by taxpayer money without advertising the post, or adhering to its own formal hiring procedures.

College officials might argue that time was of the essence; they were working on a deadline imposed by legislators and the union. If this was the explanation, we would have to believe that three months wasn’t enough time to post the opening to the college’s web site, advertise in the local paper (and The Chronicle of Higher Education—a weekly), receive applications, interview, and hire the most qualified candidate for the position. Maybe it’s not, and if that were the case, college officials should have asked legislators for an extension. The union president ought to have demanded all qualified members had an opportunity to apply. Well, that would have been awkward; the union president was the candidate hired.

If these allegations prove to be true, this tenure-line position created by the FACE legislation was filled using suspect and possibly illegal hiring practices. Worse yet, the part-time faculty served by the union were betrayed by their own leadership.

Stay tuned. We’ll have more on this as the story develops.

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