At least one time a week I eat lunch in the Student Union, at a table in the cafeteria where faculty from a wide variety of departments meet and gossip, bemoan the weather and the lack of good movies in town, talk each other into healthier activities and that cup of frozen yogurt or bad carrot cake. I have found it a very useful place to network, catch up on the local politics and university gossip -- who is on sick leave, and who is looking to move on, whether through retirement or a feeling that the grass would be greener elsewhere (because certainly the salaries would be -- we have almost the lowest salaries in my state). It is a very useful social network, and over the past 20+ years I have enjoyed it greatly, and have spent many enjoyable hours eating and gossiping, activities which have led to professional collaborations, opportunities for my students, and other benefits that are less measurable.
Most of the faculty who sit at this lunch table are part of my "generation" -- they have been there as long or sometimes even longer than I have (I am in my 23rd year here). And they tend to be part of a real powerful energetic group who were around at the time our university changed its mission from a regional comprehensive to a highly selective liberal arts institution. But they also remember that change as being the good days, and anything since the 90s is not as good.
More below the orange butterscotch thingamajig.
We added a lot of faculty at that time, and I was one of those new hires. It was an exciting thing, when we were hiring tenure track faculty from big name universities (many of whom didn't stay after a few years but went on to other institutions), people who were active researchers, involved intensively in their national and international organizations, who were ambitious and dedicated. I know, as I was one of them. We published articles and books, sent our students to elite universities for graduate work, convinced them to travel beyond the US over the summers or for a semester abroad, and to set goals for themselves that were higher than they could have ever imagined before they started at college. Almost every hire, other than sabbatical replacements, was into a tenure track position. Our student/faculty ratio dropped from 17:1 to 15:1 or lower. And these hires, student quality (both the incoming ones and the results they got after graduating), and the low cost from our supportive state legislature helped us reach great heights in the early years of US News and World Report and similar sorts of college rankings, rating levels we have managed to hang onto, because over time the faculty and the students have continued to work hard to maintain quality.
Needless to say, many of these elements are not continued in the situation we have today. The faculty that were young and hungry have turned into (largely productive) senior faculty, with tenure and higher salaries. We are tenured full professors as we have been here for 15+ years and we get paid much more than we did when we were hired on. We don't have the money to hire a lot of new faculty, and the places where faculty are needed are not necessary the places where there are open positions. There are too many faculty in some disciplines and too few in others, and with full professors tenured into positions, it makes things very difficult for the university to adjust to changing needs.
How do you make those adjustments? Hiring new faculty is the easy answer, but unlike the federal government we can't just raise taxes/tuition to increase resources (I am being sarcastic here, in case you couldn't tell). One of the things the university has set as a goal is to raise the percentage of temporary faculty to 25% (which is much higher than we have been, but less than half the national percentage). I know that this is bad for those in the temporary lines, but having several departments which have not hired anyone in more than 10 years, where there are too many faculty for the number of courses that are needed, etc., is also not healthy for a university that wants to respond to changes in student demand, etc.
Another possibility is to hire faculty into more permanent positions but who are innately flexible. This is what the discussion was at lunch, and I was on the side of flexibility. By that I mean I sided with the rumored administrative position (the thing that was making everyone at the table furious) that departments could join together and share a position, one that would result in someone who could teach equally in two disciplines. That is something I think would be great but I come at it as someone whose degrees are not in the program I was hired to teach in (I am an archaeologist, whose degree is in area studies -- we have neither archaeology nor area studies departments here at this university). I was looking for jobs in art history, anthropology, gender studies, area studies, and history programs. I became a specialist in a department's field because they hired me to teach that subject. But I could easily have taught in any of the list. Or two of them. In some ways a joint appointment would have been ideal.
I am frustrated that this is not seen as a desirable thing. But I was told that there would be no way someone who could teach in two departments would be the best person to hire. It does require you to be more flexible in your hiring, but it seems to me that the pool has as much potential to have an inspiring teacher and scholar as limiting your search to a single disciplinary focus. For example, a specialist in non-western art could have the ability to teach in Art (and Art History), Anthropology, and History. A medievalist might be able to teach in English Language, Literature, History, and perhaps demography, with a training in Geography. A specialist in Organizational Behaviour might do Business and Psychology. Someone in public health could teach Sociology, Geography, and Statistics. A good researcher would have drawn on a wide variety of disciplines in structuring his or her doctoral project, and a good teacher will be able to both teach and inspire students to learn in a variety of fields. The breaking down of disciplinary boundaries and the borrowing of approaches from one field into another is a very post-modern approach to education, and one that has not run its course. I wish we could think outside the boxes, outside departmental silos.
I was the only person at the table who felt that way, however. I am not sure if it was my background outside of the very rigid disciplinary structure (my training grew out of Biblical Studies but in its modern incarnation has left those origins pretty far behind), or my naivete, or defensiveness, or simply contrariness, but I defended the desirability of looking for flexible appointments in this way quite vociferously.
I am not against having a slightly higher percentage of temporary faculty than we do now, but I understand a hesitancy to set that precedent. However, if you want to hire in tenure-line faculty there need to be other ways to encourage flexibility that is needed to respond to changing demands from our students over the next 30 years. What do you think? If you are setting new position descriptions, what are you looking for? Disciplinary focus? Interdisciplinary interests? Dual expertise? Does having a different department for an undergraduate major and a graduate one make someone more or less desirable? Would you feel comfortable having someone without a terminal degree in your departmental subject teach your undergraduates in that major?
Would you hate to sit and talk over such things as you are trying to enjoy your taco salad for lunch?