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When You Can, Hire From Within

Picking up the baton from Herb Childress and trying to carry it a bit further.

November 11, 2019
 
 

Writing recently at the Chronicle Review, Herb Childress, author of The Adjunct Underclass, provides a list of what faculty can do to support their adjunct colleagues independent of administrative constraints.

Childress acknowledges a common refrain I hear from tenured faculty as well -- that they don’t control administrative budgets -- while also pointing out that faculty are not in a state of “total helplessness.”

It is a fantastic list of entirely doable actions that will nonetheless disconcert many tenured folks, even some of those who consider themselves allies with contingent laborers. As one example, Childress advocates for a redirecting of faculty-controlled resources to adjunct compensation.

Reduce your institution’s travel budget and the number of its institutional memberships, and put that money toward adjunct resources. If you want to be current in your field, read the journals, talk on Skype, and save three grand per conference -- a little more than the average national adjunct stipend for a three-credit course. What will serve your students better: your weekend at a conference, your adherence to a disciplinary accreditation that nobody really cares about, or a more fully supported colleague?

It is difficult to deny Childress’s logic here. To choose not to follow his recommendation does not make one a terrible person, but it is statement on one’s priorities. Either one is an ally or they are not. Allyship necessarily requires sacrifice, otherwise it doesn’t mean much. It’s more than defensible not to make that sacrifice, but it also means you don’t get to call yourself an ally.

I mostly want to speak on one of Childress’s other recommendations: “Hire from within.”

Childress advocates for internal searches that bring adjuncts into the fold “instead of searching for that distant star.”

Up until relatively recently, I would have disagreed with Childress. I would have argued that departments have an obligation to engage in a search that uncovers the “best” person for the job. I should also say that I firmly held this attitude even during the period in which I was an internal candidate for a tenure-track job that ultimately went to someone else.

But now, several years removed from the experience, and with a somewhat different perspective, I find Childress’s case persuasive: “You have both data and experience as to the effectiveness of your contingent colleagues with exactly the population of students you hope to serve. If they’ve proven themselves, promote them. You’d expect the same from your promotion and tenure process.”

Let me amplify a couple of additional points. Finding the “best” person for the job is an illusion crafted to make us feel more secure in what is an inherently subjective process. The “best” person depends very much on what criteria is privileged as most important. A department of diverse people with differing ideas will likely accommodate many different notions of “best” simultaneously. And as anyone who has engaged in a search on either side of the equation can attest, there are usually dozens of candidates (if not more) who are qualified and capable of doing the job.

Second, for the vast majority of institutions, the chase for prestige and buying in to an ethos of competition is both inefficient and costly, as it perpetuates a system that disadvantages institutions below the very highest tiers by playing a game that, for most schools, is impossible to win. Opting out of the competition where it is possible helps undermine the system that is doing so much damage to the institution itself and the people who work and learn within it.

Additionally, those shiny stars -- if they are indeed as shiny as everyone believes -- will quite possibly be inclined to move on to a shinier institution, meaning it’s back to the drawing board to find a new star. This has in fact happened with the outstanding person who secured the job when I was an internal candidate.

This isn’t about me -- I’m good -- but let’s imagine a world where a contingent faculty member who has been working at an institution for three to five years is elevated to a more secure, better paying, tenure-line job. Because this person has already established a home both at the institution and in the community, they are up and running as a full member of the department nearly instantly. The odds of that person moving on for greener pastures are much lower. Relocation costs are saved. Provided they fulfill the promise they showed as an adjunct -- and how could they not, having been given this rare opportunity -- there will never have to be another search. Win, win, win.

This is not saying that institutions must hire from within. The person must absolutely be qualified, but if that threshold is met, what is the harm to the institution to hiring them versus the demonstrable good discussed above?

I understand this may seem simply wrong. It’s how I felt for a very long time. But I think we’re in a world where a lot of the “rules” were made under very different circumstances and material conditions.

Herb Childress is asking us to define new rules around today’s conditions, rules that are actually consistent with the values we claim to hold.

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