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I always read with interest the annual story on the Inside Higher Ed survey of provosts. These are my counterparts at colleges and universities across the country. But this year I noticed something in the summary that struck me as misleading.

The story moves quickly from “Nearly a quarter of provosts said they had cut faculty positions because of the pandemic” to referring to those cuts as “layoffs.” Layoffs are one way to cut a position, of course, but in my experience they are, by far, the least common one. The much more common one is to leave a position unfilled when someone leaves. The position more or less collapses behind them.

Nonreplacements don’t trigger the same kind of scrutiny, or pushback, as layoffs. For one thing, nobody loses their job. It’s possible to argue that someone is harmed -- presumably, the person who otherwise would have been hired -- but most of the time, nobody knows who that is. No one person has the standing to sue. There’s a cumulative, generational cost, but that doesn’t trigger the same kind of conflagration as firing an incumbent.

With nonreplacements, there’s no suggestion that someone’s performance was poor. In collective bargaining environments, incumbents are represented by unions but prospective hires are not; there’s nobody to bring a grievance.

Nonreplacements -- also called cuts by attrition -- aren’t entirely friction-free, but they’re certainly less traumatic than layoffs.

Most provosts or VPAAs in settings in which enrollments have declined know the drill. In any given year, you lose some people to retirement, other jobs or various life events. You have to sacrifice some, but not all, of those positions to fill a budget gap. That entails picking winners and losers from among the departments that want to hire replacements. You look at the obvious factors -- enrollment trends at the department level, anticipated demand from employers, strategic directions for the institution, the availability of adjuncts -- and perform a kind of triage. Most years, that involves saying no to some worthy claimants, which goes over about as well as you might expect. (Every year I wind up trying to explain that there’s no “take a number” system, because there’s no way to know who’s leaving next. That usually elicits some skeptical looks, but it’s true.) Triage can be done well or badly, but even when it’s done well, it’s frustrating.

Tip for faculty who don’t want their positions to vanish behind them: don’t wait until the last day of the year to announce your retirement. That greatly increases the chances of a “temporary” shift to adjunct coverage becoming permanent. Announce early and in writing, so the college can actually plan.

Nonreplacement isn’t a panacea. It usually relies, at least in part, on the availability of adjuncts who are paid much less than their full-time counterparts. That creates issues of its own, not the least of which is fairness. Over time, nonreplacement can lead to top-heavy departments. In the case of small departments or programs or work areas, the folks who remain wind up with greater workloads to compensate for the loss; that has limits. And at a really basic level, nonreplacement at scale is more of a holding action than a real solution. Until we finally address Baumol’s cost disease in a serious way, and/or see a massive and sustained shift in our politics, we’re going to keep facing situations like these.

In the meantime, though, I recommend caution in moving from “positions are being eliminated” to “layoffs are happening.” The former does not necessarily imply the latter.

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