Faculty Retention: The Rule of 10

Jun 21 2018 Published by under Academics, Careerism

There's a thread on faculty retention (or lack thereof, really) on the twitts today:

I know this is a little weird for the segments of my audience that are facing long odds even to land a faculty job and for those junior faculty who are worried about tenure. Why would a relatively secure Professor look for a job in a different University? Well.....reasons.

As is typical, the thread touched on the question of why Universities won't work harder in advance to keep their faculty so delightfully happy that they would never dream of leaving.

Eventually I mentioned my theory of how Administration views retention of their faculty.

I think Administration (and this is not just academics, I think this applies pretty broadly) operates from the suspicion that workers always complain and most will never do anything about it. I think they suppose that for every 10 disgruntled employees, only 5 will even bother to apply elsewhere. Of these maybe three will get serious offers. Ultimately only one will leave*.

So why invest in 10 to keep 1?

This, anyway, is what I see as motivating much of the upper management thinking on what appear to be inexplicably wasteful faculty departures.

Reality is much more nuanced.

I think one of the biggest mistakes being made is that by the time a last-ditch, generally half-arsed retention ploy is attempted it can be psychologically too late. The departing faculty member is simply too annoyed at the current Uni and too dazzled by the wooing from the new Uni to let any retention offer sway their feelings. The second biggest mistake is that if there is an impression created that "everybody is leaving" and "nobody is being offered reasonable retention" this can spur further attempts to exit the building before the roof caves in.

Yes, I realize some extremely wealthy private Universities all covered in Ivy have the $$ to keep all their people happy all of the time. This is not in any way an interesting case. Most Universities have to be efficient. Spending money on faculty that are going to stay anyway may be a waste, better used elsewhere. Losing too many faculty that you've spent startup costs on is also inefficient.

So how would you strike the right balance if you were Dean at a R1 University solidly in the middle of the pack with respect to resources?
*Including by method of bribing one or more of the "serious offers" crowd to stay via the mysteries of the RetentionPackageTM

17 responses so far

  • Dennis says:

    If really only 1 in 10 ever leaves, I would call that a successful department, able to retain 90% of their professors long term. There will always be someone who wants to leave for whatever reason.

  • Carnegie Mellon is a reputable place, but we don’t have much of an endowment to support retention packages (or even big start up packages). There is a grow-your-own, farm team approach. We try to bring in lots of talented young people, knowing we’ll lose some to other universities. We don’t have the money for many senior hires.

    In recent years, the Dean has been creating additional leadership opportunities in the college, hoping the stem the outflow of our administratively-inclined faculty talent (especially women). Not clear yet how well this will work.

  • girlparts says:

    It seems like yelling at/ punishing those who lose funding is a pretty surefire way to make sure they leave if/when they regain funding.

  • DNAman says:

    The deans need to look at it on the other side, when they hire someone. Will they stay long term? I never see that question being addressed when hiring someone. I've seen the dean spend a fortune of time and money on a big shot hire that comes in, makes additional demands upsetting everyone, and leave the place 5 years later worse than it was before they came.

    When they hire someone with no personal ties to the area, no deep collaborations with others on campus, and their spouse/partner has to look for a job, what do they think will happen in 5 years when a new opportunity comes along?

    Look for someone who grew up in the area, maybe attended your institution as an undergrad. Hire people who fit in with the current research areas, who can contribute to and share in large center-like grants. If they have a spouse/partner, ensure that person also has a job that will keep them happy.

    Do all that and you'll reduce the number of disgruntled faculty overall.

  • I've been at places where there is intense investment in good grad and med students. Finding them mentors, getting them publishable (vs 'fishing' or technique) projects, sending them to meetings. The ability to hold onto, or recapture these people later in their careers was amazing. I thought it was the greatest thing - being able to raise a family and keep friends in one town? Being able to build teams that had some fail safe for your funding gaps? Really impressive. It also lead to some clusters of very bad habits being passed along generationally.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    In that twitter thread someone says that this year 3 friends have left their current (faculty) positions "for soft money positions" - which I assume means that their current positions were not soft money.

    That seems strange to me. I would think that if anything people would be fleeing in the opposite direction. Getting out of soft money land was one of my own motivations for moving.

  • Anon says:

    "I think Administration (and this is not just academics, I think this applies pretty broadly) operates from the suspicion that workers always complain and most will never do anything about it. I think they suppose that for every 10 disgruntled employees, only 5 will even bother to apply elsewhere. Of these maybe three will get serious offers. Ultimately only one will leave*."

    Part of being a good boss is getting to know the people that work for you: what makes them tick, what motivates them, what do they really value. If after working with folks for several years you can't tell the difference between someone who really would pull up stakes and someone who wouldn't, you're a lousy boss.

    We're not dealing with random quantities here, where our only source of info is statistics. These are individuals. Treat them accordingly, and your retention issues will diminish.

  • Isis says:

    What do you make of it when people aren’t leaving universities for other universities...

  • Joe says:

    Continual cuts every year to state university budgets mean that there are usually no cost of living increases in salary and your benefits are also being cut. If you want a salary increase, you need to get a job offer from somewhere else. If you get another R01, you'd be stupid not to shop around. The retention package will likely include not just a salary increase, but also some money for your lab.

  • drugmonkey says:

    AL- I was wondering about that one.

  • Caroline says:

    Re: soft- vs. hard-money positions...I’m at an R1 institute, medical school, with true tenure and 100% hard money. It is a very reassuring in terms of job stability. But I am surrounded by senior folks who met the bar for tenure and then dropped out of the research game much earlier than they would if their salaries depended partially on grants. The research enterprise isn’t robust, it’s not a place you can find strong collaborations and create multi-PI funding opportunities. Each man is an island. For some people it works well, they are a big fish in a small pond, with a large mansion on their island. Others sense that if they were in a place with a coordinated research endeavor it would open up many more opportunities. So the calculus is do I stay with the stability and no support, or do I move to a more robust place while I’m in my prime research years?

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    AL- Exactly. I've taken what is (at least on paper) a demotion just to get away from being soft money. Why the hell would anyone *go* to soft money.

  • mathlete says:

    I don't know about a 100% soft money position (no thanks), but I've been thinking lately that I wouldn't be opposed to going from a 9-month appointment where I have to teach a class every semester to, say, a 6-month one at a med school where I rarely teach.

  • Ben Stein says:

    My feeling is 50% soft money positions aren't really being created anymore. And just because you're at 50% doesn't mean you still aren't expected to maintain two full modular R01 equivalents. If anything, I imagine the pressure is even greater (e.g. what are we paying you for again?).

  • Ola says:

    I've seen the whole spectrum here (mid-rank R1). A case where very well-funded person threatened to leave and got a chunk of cash to build a new program, then left anyway 2 years later. A highly talented junior investigator who got demoted back to the research track anf left for a local SLAC and is now publishing excellent science and is NSF-funded. A world-class group who quite frankly must be sleeping with the PR office if you believe the amount of gushing about their work on the institutional website every other week. A world class group who threatened to leave and nobody likes them so they were told "don't let the door kick you in the ass on the way out". A junior investigator who was well funded, pissed off the higher ups, left and took all his funding with him, but allegedly left behind massive debts because the accounts were overspent. Junior people who have come in from glamor labs, spent all their (outsized) startup funds and then left because this place is not as glamorous as the coasts. Underperforming people who've set down roots and literally cannot move for personal reasons, and have hung on to the bitter end to obtain the lowliest admin job available.

    My interpretation here is that the institution does not have a fucking clue how to handle this stuff. Everything is just done on a case by case basis, with complete opacity. This creates an environment where only those who ask or threaten, get the good things.

  • Morgan Price says:

    “only those who ask or threaten, get the good things.” — I thought all universities worked this way

  • qaz says:

    @MorganPrice - I can guarantee you from personal experience that not all universities work this way. My university is proactive in being supportive of its faculty, both senior and junior (which is one of the reasons we have very few leaving). We build our own farm team and make it our goal to keep them here.

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