What Kind of Business Practices?
In 2007-8, when the recession hit, most universities stopped hiring people for tenure-track positions. A little over a half of the universities where I applied for a job in 2007-8 and 2008-9 replied saying that the search had been cancelled due to budget constraints. Instead, universities started to create an ever-growing number of contingent teaching positions at an even faster pace than before.
There was a university, however, that adopted a different strategy. It responded to the recession not with lay-offs and cancellations of tenured positions but by hiring aggressively. In 2007-8, this university hired 45 new tenure-track faculty members. In 2008-9, it hired even more people. Fifty-three new scholars entered the university in the rank of tenure-track Assistant Professor in that year and I was among them. Next year, three dozen new TT professors were hired.
During the new employee orientation, these new hires were told insistently and repeatedly, “We want you to get tenure with us. We will do all we can to facilitate your tenure-track progress.” And it was all true. Since then, the university has demonstrated that it has real commitment to supporting the professional aspirations of these new hires. At the same time, the number of new contingent faculty members who were hired by this university during each of the academic years in question can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
These tenure-track hires were people who had graduated from fantastic graduate programs and had suddenly discovered that nobody needed them because of the recession. The university I’m talking about used this opportunity to hire brilliant, enthusiastic young academics who will raise the research profile of the school dramatically and are already doing so. Since the work conditions are very good and the benefits are very generous, this large group of new hires has the time and the energy to explore new teaching strategies and connect to the students on a personal level. As a result, everybody wins.
We keep hearing that universities are starting to act like businesses and it harms academia at large. The problem, however, is not only that we adopt business models but that we adopt really bad business models. Companies that operate on the revolving-door model, that hire people, squeeze them dry and throw them out within a few years represent a very poor, unproductive approach to business. They are oriented towards a short-term profit-making and soon create a very bad reputation for themselves. To give just one example, my sister and her business partner have created a very successful business from the ground and were aided greatly in that effort by the fact that their chief competitor, a big, well-established old company had abandoned its standards of excellence and had become a revolving-door place of employment. Now, the clients are abandoning it in droves and seeking out competitors who attract and retain talented, loyal employees.
I often have a feeling that when colleges hire administrators with a background in business, they select people whose business skills are not very good. They frequently don’t even realize that treating employees like crap and offering them no opportunities to grow within the company is a stupid practice both in business and in academia.