The low rumble of discussion over the last few years about the process of assessing the needs in various departments has finally broken out into an invitation to faculty to send in their own thoughts about future needs to the provost. As any academic knows, there’s only one process that can create more ill-will than full-scale academic planning of this kind, and that’s planning for some kind of institutional contraction. It’s why many faculty and administrators at both large and small institutions often prefer to carry out such planning in a more ad hoc manner. It allows everyone to come away from any given decision about any given faculty line with their own assumptions and visions of the future intact.
A process of planning, on the other hand, requires either one coherent vision winning out or the construction of some kind of chimeric vision and a Rube Goldberg process for making choices–the latter being the more common result. You either end up with people feeling like losers–and sometimes those people turn to long-term guerilla warfare against the new plan as a result–or with some unwieldy and programmatically incompatible process that will just serve as a fig leaf for future ad hoc decision-making.
I’m being overly gloomy: it’s possible, especially at a small relatively consensus-oriented and friendly institution like Swarthmore, for almost everyone to take the high road and end up feeling comfortable and enthusiastic about the results.
My temptation is immediately to climb up on my own favored soapbox, because I think there’s really only one sensible way to think about institutional needs. Before I do that, it’s worth exploring the alternative underlying systems one might use to coherently assess what a liberal arts faculty needs to have in the future. (Some kind of system is how you avoid pure political brutalism, in which a few strong departments mobilize and get what they want first and foremost–at least on paper.)
System 1: Herd instinct. Find out what the most commonly represented fields at peer institutions are, find out which ones we don’t have, and let those absences guide you. The Swarthmore Department of History has no historian of England, for example, but it’s extremely common field to have even in small institutions.
Problems: defers the explanation of why those fields are important to other institutions. Still leaves you with a huge set of unrepresented fields to choose from, and with no winnowing procedure save relative degree of commonality at other institutions.
System 2: Consumer demand. Look at which departments have the most majors, or the most challenging ratios of faculty to majors, and service their needs first and foremost. Or look at which fields prospective students most seem to want, or find most attractive. Or look at which specific fields of study are drawing the most demand and get more faculty in those specific areas.
Problems: Easily for both faculty and administrators to manipulate demand. Considering that you hire a faculty member to a tenure line for a lifetime potentially, dangerous to effectively make a 30-40 year commitment around a short-term spike in demand. Students tend to demand particular majors on false premises (e.g., the belief that an economics major is the only way to move on to an MBA). If taken seriously as a premise, should also lead to reductions or eliminations of unpopular programs and subjects even when there is strong consensus on the part of faculty that those programs are intellectually important to a well-balanced curriculum. (Classics, for example.)
System 3 Urgency and Utility. Collectively decide what unrepresented fields of specialization are lacking that the faculty, administration and students recognize as having a kind of “perfect storm” convergence of general importance, newly urgent necessity, and significant practical and intellectual importance. This is pretty much what Swarthmore uses as a principle governing both ad hoc and long-term planning for new positions or redefinitions of old ones, with the addition that we also regard diversification of the faculty as important.
Problems: I think this is ok, but I do think that you get some pretty chimeric end results at times–significantly divergent metrics of urgency and need being used to justify a range of planning decisions. That’s largely because it’s impossible to see how we or anyone else could have a meaningfully shared yardstick that would allow us to talk about the relative weight of a new position in Engineering on one hand versus a new position in Middle Eastern politics on the other. At some point, you tend to get appeals to “demand-side” issues thrown into the pot to try and slide past the fact that there are going to be relatively incommensurable ideas on the table about what’s important. The end result tends to reinforce disciplinarity in the end–divisions tend to say, “We’ll give you one if you give us one”, and unusual or dissident positions within any given academic division tend to get pushed aside. Also, again, taken seriously, this kind of process should lead not just to addition but reallocation of positions–that you look at fields whose importance has declined and try to move the resources invested in them elsewhere.
System 4 Money. If a department or division can bring in the money for a position (either from grants or alumni), let them have it. Otherwise, let them eat the crumbs from the table. Not really applicable here–but this is effectively how some large research universities do academic planning.
Problem: This is where academic politics get brutal and unrestrained–a race to capture any and all sources of funding, and a lo tof things of value fall by the wayside inevitably in the process.
My own soapbox preference isn’t any of these. I think my colleagues get tired of hearing it from me, I know I’m bloody predictable, but this is where a small liberal arts college ought to be doing something completely different. I think every one of those other systems, even attempts to come to a community consensus about a small number of urgent needs, consigns a small liberal arts college to being a bad little university. Because each of those processes except for the last one takes you into planning thinking about all the things that you lack: they end up being a catalogue of absences.
I much prefer to think that a place like this is the size that it is on purpose, that its size is a strength that is not just pedagogical but intellectual. What do we need that we don’t have? Not more specialists in various fields, however urgent those specializations might be. We need people who help to knit us together, people who connect specializations, people who create connections as an instrinsic result of the kinds of research and teaching they do. “Science studies” or science policy scholars. Big-picture specialists on human evolution, population genetics, sociobiology (of the subtle kind). Broadly humanistic intellectuals whose specific areas of interest range over philosophy, literary criticism, history, linguistics, and so on. Cognitive scientists. Experimental economics. Fields of research that are interstitial and connective by their nature, pursued by individuals whose own projections of their development are towards generalization and broadening.
I don’t think you can just name such fields as specializations and be done with it, either. If you plan for such positions, you had better plant them in fertile soil. If you just dump such faculty in established departments, chances are some of them are going to hit a lot of hostility from people who have much more disciplinary ideas about specialization. You really have to plan to go in this direction, have an overall design, not just tell two departments to get together and build their own Frankenstein monster out of bits and pieces. That kind of process tends to end up with the resulting positions getting re-dismembered at tenure time.
I think I’m going to have to wear one of those shock collars people put on barking dogs to keep myself from saying this kind of stuff too much once the fall rolls around. Most everyone round these parts knows I think this way: the trick is going to be to persuade some of them to think this way too.