Retaining knowledge: UI tries to keep faculty from leaving

Retaining knowledge: UI tries to keep faculty from leaving

URBANA – Brian Wansink had it pretty good.

He liked his job as a professor of marketing, nutritional science and agricultural economics at the University of Illinois. He liked his colleagues. He liked Champaign-Urbana. He even played saxophone in a local band.

He was, as he remembers, "incredibly happy."

But after eight years of being on the UI faculty, last year he resigned to accept a similar position at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Wansink was ready for a change of environment, for new excitement.

"I thought if I can shake things up, it might change my perspective a little," he said.

UI administrators expect a certain number of faculty members to leave each year to become deans or department heads at other universities.

But what they don't want to happen is for professors, particularly those at the most productive stage of their careers, to leave the UI and do virtually the same thing at another university, said UI Provost Linda Katehi.

Katehi, who came to the UI in April from Purdue, is gathering data on exactly how many UI professors are leaving and why, where are they going, and what can be done about it. She expects to discuss the issue with deans at a retreat this week.

At the same time, University of Illinois administrators expect to bring before the board of trustees this September a proposal to increase salaries for faculty as part of the fiscal year 2007 budget package. The program is one of several efforts to retain quality faculty.

Retention: a problem or issue?

The average raise will be 3 percent, but it's a merit raise and that means it could be anywhere from nothing to 10 percent, depending on performance, said Chet Gardner, the UI's vice president for academic affairs. Gardner stepped down from his position on June 30 to focus on the UI's online education initiative.

"I think we all wish we could do more," said Gardner about the raise package. The 3 percent average raise does not mean the UI will gain any ground on its competition, he said.

The UI tries to have a merit salary program for faculty and staff every year, but that's not always the case, Gardner said. When the UI underwent budget cuts during fiscal 2003, faculty and staff did not receive merit increases.

"I sense in the past couple of years this institution has been susceptible. Salary increases have barely kept pace with inflation," Gardner said. Peer institutions with better finances can come in and attract the best and brightest faculty. He cited universities within the California public education system. And Katehi cited Michigan as another example of an institution that has won several UI professors in recent years.

"At times we have some faculty and staff who are in high demand, and it's important for us to provide a compensation package that encourages them to stay," Gardner said.

The national average among public universities for assistant professors is $60,440 and $101,620 for full professors, according to a survey by the American Association of University Professors using data for 2005-2006. The UI average for an assistant professor is $69,600 and $116,600 for full professors, according to the same survey.

With about 20,000 faculty and staff across all three UI campuses, each time salaries are raised by a percent, it costs the university about $8.7 million. The upcoming salary program is budgeted at $26 million.

At Monday and Tuesday's retreat, Katehi said, she expects to discuss faculty retention and its related issues. She expects to discuss whether the UI does have a retention problem, and if so, how bad it is compared to peer institutions. She's also gathering more concrete data.

"Despite the fact that I don't have these extensive data (she hopes to have them by the end of August) I have a sense, from the activities I've seen, that we do have a retention issue," Katehi said. "I do think we have way too many faculty hired by other institutions.

"What we're going to do is take a hard look at this. We'll also put in place strong programs to retain our own faculty, reducing the salary gap, eliminating it hopefully, and become comparable with our peers," Katehi said.

Other actions involve improving facilities and adding endowed professorships and chairs for senior faculty. They'll also look at the university's promotion and tenure system and its mentoring programs.

"Faculty are primarily driven by their interest in teaching and their scholarly discipline, but there is a financial factor as well. They need to know the institution cares about their economic well-being," Gardner said.

During fiscal year 2005, 85 faculty members at the Urbana-Champaign campus had firm offers from other institutions. About half of them stayed, half of them left. According to a survey in August 2005, 47 faculty members had resigned, compared with 34 who had resigned at the same time in 1995.

In 2004, 28 faculty member had resigned when the survey was conducted at the same time. And in 2003, 37 members had resigned.

Why the resignations?

"It's rarely just about salary," said Vice Provost Ruth Watkins.

Not just about money

Jian Zhang, an assistant professor in environmental and civil engineering, left the UI for a faculty position at UCLA earlier this year.

"I left Illinois because of the great difficulties of finding my husband, who also has a Ph.D. degree in engineering, a comparable job in Champaign," Zhang wrote in an e-mail. She would like the UI to build on its spouse hiring program, and said it should be a real physical unit instead of just a virtual program that stops at the job offer letter, she said.

"Some people leave to recapture a sense of appreciation that may have left them. With some people, it's just a small number of things that disappointed or irritated them," Wansink said.

In other words, everyone leaves for a different reason.

Peter Constable, a professor and interim department head at the UI's College of Veterinary Medicine, resigned in January to take a permanent department head position at Purdue.

The Purdue salary was higher, but money was not the main reason he left, he said. He received a counteroffer from the UI, but ended up leaving because essentially the new job was a promotion.

"In the last three to four years, Purdue has been successful in convincing the (state) legislature of the value of higher education," said Constable, noting Purdue's commitment to hiring 300 new faculty. "Purdue is in expansion mode and Illinois in survival mode," he said.

Katehi, however, said Purdue and the UI are at different stages.

"The reason Purdue decided to hire more faculty is because the student/faculty ratio was much higher than we have here. They had too few faculty for the number of students."

A request for more funding for that reason was an easy argument to make to the legislature, she said.

In contrast, the UI needs money to invest in facilities, keep top-notch professors here, and to fund scholarships and fellowships, she said.

"What you want to do is pre-emptive retention," Watkins said. That means creating a climate or environment so if the faculty member is approached, he or she turns down the offer.

The UI may be able to address some concerns of the faculty member, such as matching funding or providing additional research staff.

To persuade a faculty member to stay often takes creative thinking and planning, Wansink said. A larger salary may not get someone to stay, but the promise of having a postgraduate researcher working with the professor for three years might, he said.

"When we find out that a faculty member has an offer, I think it's too late," Katehi said. "When most faculty are going through the process of looking at other institutions in a very serious way, they're making up their mind whether this is the place where they want to pursue their careers."

Administrators must work to convince them that the UI is the place they should spend the rest of their careers. And they must try to get faculty to stop making comparisons on salaries, facilities and other factors, she said.

When faculty members walk that path of comparisons, it's often hard to bring them back, she said.

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