New UI faculty hires so far fail to offset campus losses

New UI faculty hires so far fail to offset campus losses

URBANA — Despite recent efforts to increase the number of faculty on campus, the University of Illinois has fewer professors this fall as an unprecedented number of them retired over the summer or left for jobs elsewhere.

Last year, the provost's office, which oversees faculty hiring on the campus, launched two new initiatives to hire not only more junior faculty, but also mid-career professors whose research falls into one of several strategic, broad-based disciplines. Administrators also offered some financial incentives to help departments pay for their new recruits.

A total of 61 new faculty were hired, with the possibility a few more may join the university later this semester.

But 58 faculty left due to retirement and 21 left to accept jobs at other institutions or after they were counseled to leave if they were not likely to receive tenure.

The new hires were not enough to offset the year's losses or reverse a long-term trend that shows a "general erosion" of tenured faculty over the last 20 years, according to UI Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre. Since 2001, the number of tenure-system faculty in Urbana has declined almost 13 percent and now stands around 1,700, according to the university.

"We've had some pretty large-scale turnover of our faculty," said Vice Provost Barbara Wilson.

The erosion of the faculty can be attributed to a combination of factors, including cutbacks in hiring in recent years based on uncertain budget outlooks and the decline in state funding, plus a spike in retirements. The university offered a voluntary retirement program a few years ago, and a change in the money-purchase formula for employees vested in the State Universities Retirement System prompted a jump in retirements this past summer.

Pierre, who recently presented a "faculty renewal" report to a committee of university trustees, said the bright side is it appears many of the losses in recent years can be attributed to retirements more than the campus being raided by other universities, according to staff analysis.

Still, as faculty numbers have declined over the years, the number of students has increased (raising the student-faculty ratio to 18-to-1 from 15-to-1 a decade ago) and faculty productivity, such as the amount of federal research grants, has been on an upward trend.

"It's clear the situation is not sustainable. At some point we're going to stop being more productive," Pierre said.

Over the coming year the university community is expected to delve into this topic of faculty renewal, discussing, among other topics, what is the optimal number of faculty for a department and what are the program areas in which the university should invest. Expect a number of offer letters to be mailed out.

"Hiring a faculty member is a 30-year investment, and we need to be strategic in how we do it," Pierre said.

You'd be hard pressed to find a college or unit on campus not conducting a search for a professor this year.

Last fall, campus administration approved searches for 133 faculty members, Wilson said. Sixty-one were hired, meaning more than half did not end up with a hire.

"Not every search is successful," she said. The number varies, but roughly 55 percent of searches are successful, according to Wilson.

Whether or not a search is successful depends on how competitive the market is, whether the department is trying to recruit an assistant professor or a more senior scholar, with the latter being more difficult to land, she said.

For this academic year, the campus has approved 113 searches, not including the unsuccessful ones that will be carried forward from last year.

"A lot of people are looking in the area of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) right now," she said. Especially sought-after: accomplished people who have received robust funding in STEM research. And because many institutions are trying to increase diversity among their faculty, any promising faculty member who is from an underrepresented group is likely to have many offers, she said.

When a faculty member leaves a department, "there's never a desire just to refill position with the same skill set," said UI President Bob Easter, who was dean and provost before being tapped as interim chancellor and eventually president.

"As new areas of funding emerge we have to make sure we have capacity in the faculty to go after those funds," he said.

In Urbana, an effort called the Illinois Strategic Excellence Hiring Program is under way to build faculty in four areas: information technology and society; human health and wellness; energy and sustainability; culture, communication and global issues. Its focus is on recruiting more senior than assistant-level professors and ones whose research and approach is interdisciplinary.

The provost's office has committed $75,000 toward the recurring salary for those positions, and the department or unit covers the rest.

The campus approved nine proposals last year under the Strategic Excellence Hiring Program and ultimately hired three. Seven new proposals have been submitted for this year and staff are reviewing those now, Wilson said.

"These are senior positions and it's hard to do (such a hire) in one year," said Wilson, who added that some of the strategic searches from last year will be extended this year. "Sometimes you need another year to get the word out and call for the best person. When you look for senior people — tenured people — it's harder because they're settled at their institution," she said.

Recruits who are more established may have older children and may want to wait a year until the child graduates high school before they make a move, or the recruit has a senior-level spouse whose employment needs to be weighed as well, Pierre said.

It was the allure of interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues in education, women's studies and other fields that prompted Safiya Umoja Noble to choose to join the UI faculty. That and resources such the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications made it a top pick for Noble.

A graduate of the UI's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, she was a finalist at two other universities but accepted a position in the UI's Department of African American Studies.

"Not every campus promotes that interdisciplinary collaboration, but Illinois does," she said. "I'm very hopeful this is a place I can forge a great career. I certainly feel my work is supported here."

Of the 61 new faculty hired for this academic year, 15 were hired through the campus' Targets of Opportunity Program, which is aimed at hiring faculty from underrepresented groups. A few more positions are being negotiated. Administrators were shooting for 30. That program, established last year, is continuing this year as well, Wilson said.

Compared with its peer institution median, the Urbana campus has a higher percentage of tenure-system faculty from underrepresented groups, including blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, Native Hawaiians and multiracial groups.

"That's not something we can ever let up on," Vice President and Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise said recently to the UI trustees.


By the numbers: UI faculty gains, losses

61: new tenure-system faculty hires for current academic year

58: recent faculty retirements

21: faculty resignations*

18: Net loss

*Includes faculty who left to take a position elsewhere or who were advised to leave if they were not expected to be granted tenure.

Source: University of Illinois.

This story appeared in print on Sept. 23.

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vcponsardin wrote on September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm

It would help if the university provided more competitive salaries.  Instead, the administration operates on the stingiest of budgets, acting as if every potential faculty member can't wait to come here.  My own unit lost several possible hires because the university administration failed to make a serious effort to hire them; failed to recognize that they need to offer greater incentives and heftier salaries to convince the best to come all the way out here.  It would also help if the state would stop cutting retirement benefits.  The threat of reduce benefits has certainly taken its toll on recruitment.  There has to be some sort of carrot to attract people to come to Urbana-Champaign.  It's tough to convince professors from the east or west coast (where many of the best schools are) to move to the middle of nowhere (two to three hours' drive from the nearest city) and live here for the rest of their lives without offering something more than flat countryside, free bus service and all the corn you can eat.

Alexander wrote on September 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I agree that higher salaries would be nice (provided it didn't cause major compression and inversion issues, which I suspect it would), I have some personal doubts about how much raising the salary offers would help. Some semi-random thoughts follow: 

1. We're not well off enough to go way above and beyond our "peers". I think the working procedure is that the school can match most offers though.

2. I don't think we can really out-compete with a huge over the top offer on coastal schools. We just don't have the money to make this practice for usual asst. prof. hires. If someone really lusts after the coast, an equal or nominally better financial offer doesn't do much.

3. The defined benefit pension package was a big carrot that most young people might not realize. I agree it's much less of one now.

4. I took a look around the university and asked myself, what does a typical successful professor here look like? Here's the profile I came up with for many departments: the person graduated from an excellent but not super-famous institution, but have performed much better than the average graduate of that place/department (and better than most of the graduates of the super-famous places). They are most serious about research, have a family, and don't care so much about aspects of the coast that so many lust over (although they realize it is nice there, of course). In particular, they were *never* the person who would turn down a good place in the cornfields for a community college or second/third tier place in the precious Bay area. They may be in a spousal hire situation. They are happy that the short commute helps save them time to do work. 



vcponsardin wrote on September 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I certainly agree with much of what you write.  And I still come to the conclusion that if the U of I wants to attract and retain top faculty, they must come up with financial packages that are better than most.  Compression is an issue--but it's one that can be remedied if the school put salary enhancement at the top of its priority list.  But I see no interest and litte incentive among the six-figured adminstrators to do so.  The university already ranks low in compensation compared to other peer institutions.  Not a good thing if you're trying to persuade people to move here.  And it's especially short-sighted if the U of I wants to attract more from the "super-famous" schools, rather than perpetuate its long-standing tradition of hiring mostly those from less than "super famous" schools.  "Slightly better than mediocre" is not a very inspiring motto...  No wonder the U of I is having such a tough time hiring and retaining faculty.

Alexander wrote on September 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I need to emphasize a point: I didn't make equal "Ph.D from not super-famous school" with "slightly better than mediocre". Quite the opposite. There are excellent hires from not-as-prestigious institutions on faculty here with all kinds of success (including national and international honors most Harvard-like graduates could be envious of). Not everyone is like that, but also not everyone from Harvard-like places pan out. 

All things being equal, we all know what everyone wants: lots of success, a great cv (including superfamous Ph.D institution), wonderful personality etc. Problem is that those people get offers elsewhere and unless there's special circumstances, we can't compete. So that means UIUC has to work harder to find and try to hire those not as obvious cases. In my opinion, that is where I've seen the real failure: we go after the guy from Princeton who will never come here, and never interview the guy from U of (some state, not California) who would be a great hire AND actually like it here.

All the above concerns junior hires. I think it is clear that excellent senior hires are possibly more critical, since they provide the true incentive for coming here (for "real academics", not just those who want to hang at nice coastal restaurants). There, I suspect the best idea is to hire from out of the country. Unless a spousal situation is the issue, there's basically no way you're going to strip UC Berkeley or Michigan etc (much less the ivys) of their top people; and most of the US people you want for big impact senior hires are already well-situated.

P.S. I've read your earlier diatribe about C-U. For what it's worth, having grown up in a nice city and having lived on the coast, I actually like it here.

kiel wrote on September 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Our dept lost several potential hires last year to other schools, but mostly other Big Ten schools (though a couple also to "coastal" universities). The main reasons: 1) SLOW administrative processing throughout the search process (from approving job postings to making offers). 2) Compensation that is too low to attract people to C-U (and I love C-U, too). 3) Continued state-level uncertainty about retirement and other benefits, and continued administrative upheaval. 


Alexander wrote on September 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Your reason "1)" is not unrelated to my viewpoint -- if you have flexible hiring then you can bring in the "top star(s)" as well as "the less obvious" and react to the market in real time.

Concerning 2), I'm genuinely interested to know your experience (if only in generic terms): what does "too low" mean? Does it mean UIUC couldn't match an offer? Or does it mean that "you would have to pay me an extra 20K for me to come to UIUC rather than [peer school in better locale]"?

I agree with 3) being a problem.