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Loyal, but in Which Direction?

Friends of mine say that I’m loyal to a fault. They don’t know the half of it. The truth is, I have many faults, and I’m loyal to all of them.

OK, so that’s an old joke. But it helps me introduce a difficult and highly fraught topic: the loyalty that institutions show, or fail to show, to the people who work for them—particularly the part-time faculty.

Several weeks ago, I went to a high-school basketball game in my community. It was Senior Night, the last home game for the host team, when senior players and their families are honored at halftime. Another Senior Night tradition is that the seniors get to start the game—or at least play significant minutes, if there are more than five—even if they haven’t usually logged much playing time.

This team had six seniors, two of whom were regular starters. Two others were in the rotation, meaning that they usually played a good bit, while the other two hardly ever played at all.

I was a little surprised when the starting lineup was introduced and only two seniors’ names were called—the two who always started. As the game wore on, the other two seniors who were part of the regular rotation played just about their usual minutes. But the last two never made it onto the court.

It was a close game, which the home team won by just one point. It was also an important regional contest, with the outcome determining playoff seeding. No doubt the coach decided she couldn’t win the game and earn the higher seed if she played girls who, in her judgment, just weren’t good enough. And her calculation certainly seemed accurate, considering the score.

On the other hand, those two girls and their parents (whom I know) were predictably disappointed and angry. To their way of thinking, they had worked just as hard for just as long as the other girls, and they deserved their moment in the spotlight—even if it meant that the team might lose the game. (Neither girl believed, however, that putting her in the game would have cost the team the win.) Afterward I heard several parents—not just the mother and father of those two girls—express disagreement with the coach’s decision and say that “there are more important things than winning.”

All of which raises the question: If you’re a high-school basketball coach, whose job may depend on your won-lost record, are there more important things than winning? If so, is personal loyalty one of them? How about institutional loyalty?

Those of us who serve on hiring committees, it seems to me, often face similar dilemmas. How much loyalty do we owe those individuals who have served us faithfully as part-time faculty members, in many cases for years? Should we give preference to them because of that, as many posters on this blog have suggested? Or should we try to hire the best people possible, whether or not they’ve worked for us?

Of course, sometimes our homegrown adjuncts are indeed the best people for the job. They already know the institution, the department, the students. And often they’re just as qualified on paper, if not more so, as any other applicant. That’s where my Senior Night analogy breaks down. Most observers at that game, even if they thought the two girls should have played, acknowledged that they weren’t as talented as their teammates.

And that’s precisely the point. When we talk about loyalty, what we mean is that those girls should have played not because of their ability but because of what they had done for the school and the program over four years. They had been loyal to the team, and the coach, in return, should have demonstrated her loyalty to them by playing them on Senior Night, regardless of the outcome.

So what happens when some of our own adjuncts apply for tenure-track positions, and we determine that, in our professional judgment, they’re not as qualified or just not as good as other applicants? Do we owe it to them to hire them anyway? To the extent that they’ve shown loyalty to the department by working there all those years for meager wages, do we have a moral obligation to show them loyalty in return by offering them tenure-track jobs when available?

I confess that, as a former department chair and serial search-committee member, I usually lean toward giving our adjuncts the nod, occasionally over people who seem more qualified on paper. I know those adjuncts personally, I know their commitment to the department, and I believe they will make fine full-time faculty members—and they usually do. I believe that we do owe them some degree of loyalty because of all they’ve done.

But there are times when I just don’t think that a particular person who has taught for us as an adjunct would make a good full-time addition to the department, and I occasionally have to say so. Perhaps that’s being disloyal. But I would argue that ultimately my loyalty is to the department, and to the institution, and not to any individual.

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