Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: hiring

March 10

Could We Eliminate Sessionals if We Wanted To?

Last week, when I was writing about sessionals, I made the following statement:

“Had pay levels stayed constant in real terms over the last 15 years, and the surplus gone into hiring, the need for sessionals in Arts & Science would be practically nil”.

A number of you wrote to me, basically calling BS on my statement.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to show the math on this.

In 2001-02, there were 28,643 profs without administrative duties in Canada, collectively making $2.37 billion dollars, excluding benefits.  In 2009-10, there were 37,266 profs making $4.29 billion, also excluding benefits.  Adjusting for inflation, that’s a 56% increase in total compensation – but, of course, much of that is taken up by having more profs.  If we also control for the increase in the number of professors, what we have left is an increase of 18.8%, or $679 million (in 2009 dollars).

How many new hires could you make with that?  Well, the average assistant prof in 2009 made $90,000.  So, simple math would suggest that 7,544 new assistant profs could have been hired for that amount.  That means that had professors’ salaries stayed even in real terms, universities could have hired 16,347 new staff in that decade, instead of the 8,803 they actually did.

(Okay, I’m oversimplifying a bit.  There are transaction costs to landing new professors.  And hiring that many young profs all at once would just be storing up financial chaos 5-15 years down the road, as they gain in seniority.  So $679 million probably wouldn’t buy you that many new profs.  But on the other hand, if you were doing some hiring, you’d spend less money on sessionals, too, so it’s probably not far off.)

Would that number of new hires have eliminated the need for sessionals?  Hard to say, since we have no data either on the number of sessionals, or the number of courses they collectively teach.  What we can say is that if 7,500 professors had been hired, the student:faculty ratio would have fallen from 25:1 to 22:1, instead of rising – as, in fact, it did – to 27:1. That’s a pretty significant change no matter how you slice it.

(The question remains, though: would you want to give up sessionals, even if you could?  As I pointed out last week, in many programs sessionals perform a vital role of imparting practical, real-world experience to students.  And even where that’s not their primary function, they act as swing labour, helping institutions cope with sudden surges of students in particular fields of study.  They have their uses, you know.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that professors should have foregone all real wages increases over a decade, in order to increase the size of the professoriate.  But I am suggesting that universities have made some choices in terms of pay settlements that has affected their ability to hire enough staff to teach all the students they’ve taken on.  The consequence – as I noted before – is more sessionals.  But it very definitely did not need to be that way.

January 15

Those “Lost Generation” Stories

I see Maclean’s is cashing in on the zeitgeist with yet another story about a “lost generation“.  These stories always cover the same arc: Find a young, bright, hardworking, recent graduate whose career, for one reason or another, hasn’t hit lift off; blame this situation on the recession, even though that link can’t really be proven; provide some cod-economic arguments as to why this state of affairs is permanent; repeat.

But we should know it’s not true, because we’ve seen this film before; both the early 80s and early 90s also had “lost generations”.  Each time the term crops up, there are reasons why “this time is different”, but they’re mostly hogwash.  That Maclean’s article lists five such reasons, none of which stand up to much scrutiny.

i)     The decline of central Canada’s manufacturing sector, and the union jobs it sustained;

True, but those jobs never went to university grads anyway – so how is this relevant?

ii)     Relentless cost-cutting by corporations;

OK, but most of the people being profiled are actually looking for public sector careers.  And private sector jobs are actually up over the past few years.

iii)     The demographic bulge of older workers occupying high-skilled, well-paying positions;

Older people always have better jobs than younger people – that’s not news.  And since the labour market is currently stable – new entrants are closely matched by new retirees –  the “bulge”  argument is simply not true.

iv)     Parents who pressed their kids into university, hoping they’d get prestigious, white-collar jobs; 

Ah yes, the over-supply argument.  Problem is, there’s no good evidence that the pay of university graduates is falling; and as for youth unemployment, it’s about the same as its always been – twice the general rate of unemployment.  That strongly suggests that problems are cyclical

v)     and, Universities and colleges who indulged that urge, despite the changing demands of the labour market.

WHAT changing demands of the labour market?  How have university degrees become less necessary in the labour market over the past twenty years?  Or, if we’re just talking about grads since 2009, how exactly were universities supposed to be aware of the bust in 2005-7, when they accepted these students in the first place?

Here’s the deal:  some cohorts – like the classes of 2002-7 – get lucky.  They graduate into boom times and never really know what it’s like to struggle for a job.  Other cohorts are less lucky.  They graduate into periods of high unemployment and life sucks for awhile.  But eventually things improve.

Remember the characters in Douglas Copeland’s Generation X?   They eventually became the people that today’s journalists say are hogging all the good jobs. It got better for them; it will get better for the present lot as well.

December 20

More Thoughts on Presidential Selections

A couple of points which I couldn’t quite jam into last week’s blog on University Presidents:

1) Where are the foreigners?   Why do we assume that only Canadians can run Canadian universities?  It’s fairly obvious from their actions that university Boards of Governors assume this.  And when we do want a “foreign” perspective, all we seem to do is repatriate Canadians (e.g.: Robert Birgenau at Toronto, Roseann Runte at Carleton, Doyle Anderson at FNU, etc.).

That’s a pretty poor showing for a set of institutions which claims pretensions to being world-class.  Granted, every institution has a local community to satisfy, but it’s not as though our universities are so peculiar as to be impenetrable to outsiders.  If central banking has become a sufficiently technocratic profession that someone can swap Ottawa for London with relatively little difficulty, why should university leadership be any different?   American universities aren’t shy about this: Runte’s passport didn’t cause a stir when she was at Old Dominion; even Oxford has appointed foreigners to the Vice-chancellorship (John Hood was a kiwi).

Forgive me for banging this drum again, but why exactly, if we want to be taken seriously in the internationalization department, are we not aggressively hiring foreign senior administrative staff who might actually give us a leg up in this area?  Why haven’t one or two universities poached an Australian or a Brit to run their operations?  They’d certainly have more experience than almost any domestic candidate in terms of running universities on a shoestring, and attracting foreign students.

It’s a mystery to me.

2) Are there better ways to choose Presidents?  A couple of people wrote to me last week to ask whether there wasn’t a better way to select Presidents than the current method – having a dozen people go into secret conclave with a headhunter and emerge 8 months later with a name.

In much of the world – including some Quebec institutions –  the model is a democratic one.  Put simply, faculty vote for their Presidents.  This tends to favour insiders (though Francois Tavenas was elected at Laval, while still employed at McGill), which isn’t always a good thing, since a lot of back-room deals can be made on the way to building a winning electoral coalition.  An in-between solution is to present a number of candidates to the university community in a town hall setting, prior to making a final decision.  It’s more open and democratic than the current system, but if you require job candidates to announce to the world that they’re open to leaving their present job, you deter a lot of good candidates who already hold important positions.

So, no, I’m not sure there is a better method to be honest.  Sorry.

December 13

The Presidential Merry-Go-Round

It was noted recently that there are some big presidential vacancies looming, most notably at Toronto, McGill, Victoria, and Dalhousie.  So who’s going to get these plum jobs?

At Dalhousie, of course, we already know the answer: It’s Richard Florizone – formerly the VP Finance and Administration at the University of Saskatchewan, who also had stints at the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank), Bombardier, and the Boston Consulting Group.

This wasn’t Florizone’s first attempt at becoming a university President – why he wasn’t selected to succeed Peter McKinnon at Saskatchewan remains uncertain. One possibility is that the university wanted a change in style (not uncommon after a three-term presidency, no matter how good the President is – and McKinnon was one of the best); many considered Florizone too close to McKinnon, stylistically, to have a chance.  Another possibility is that the faculty felt his academic credentials weren’t strong enough; Florizone has a PhD in nuclear physics from MIT, but he preferred the private sector to the tenure track.  Nothing wrong with that, of course: Florizone’s definitely got all the skills to be an excellent university President.  But in the world of university leadership, his lack of professorial rank is a bit of an oddity.

What about the other three?  At UVic, after 13 years of David Turpin, the university might well favour an outsider (as was the case with Saskatchewan).  It could either pick up a President from a smaller university (Eddy Campbell and Ray Ivany would both be great choices, but my guess is that neither is available), or an up-and-coming Vice-President Academic (Carl Amrhein? Maureen Mancuso?).  Victoria’s one of the country’s more interesting universities, so there should be no shortage of strong candidates.

Toronto tends not to hire from other Canadian universities so an appointment from abroad is a strong possibility – which means it’s very hard to call.  At McGill, there’s going to be a real temptation to try to bring Stephen Toope home from UBC, which would then require filling a vacancy on the west coast.   Personally , I think you’d want to do a sanity check on anyone wanting to move from UBC to Quebec these days, but the hometown pull might be enough to sway Toope.  At the same time, Daniel Woolf is coming to the end of his term at Queen’s, so he might be in-frame, as well. Of course, David Turpin could also be a good choice, assuming he’s not royally sick of the whole administration thing by now (though if Woolf moves, Turpin would have to be top of Queen’s wishlist).

Want to impress people with your prognostication skills?  Leave your guesses for the Vic, McGill and Toronto presidencies in the comments section.