Efforts to poach top UI faculty spiked during state budget crisis

Efforts to poach top UI faculty spiked during state budget crisis

URBANA — The state's budget crisis has subsided for now, but its impact on faculty recruitment remains a key issue at the University of Illinois.

Campus officials are still massaging the numbers, but outside recruiting of the UI's top professors was up 50 percent in each of the past two years over previous years, according to interim Provost John Wilkin.

"It was a challenging couple of years," Wilkin said at Monday afternoon's annual meeting of the faculty, where the issue generated some discussion.

UI President Tim Killeen said the number of retention packages — incentives to persuade faculty to stay at the UI — appears to be down this year but is still "too high for comfort."

"We're very concerned about the loss of talent. We have had some painful losses," he said. "Had this gone on another year, we would have been in trouble."

In 2015-16, a total of 124 faculty members were recruited by other schools, up from 84 the previous year; at least 50 opted to stay for the following year, many with the help of retention packages. And the number of new faculty hired dropped by half.

Recruiting offers were up again over the past year, though exact numbers weren't immediately available Monday.

"I don't have final numbers on how successful we were, but it was a pure onslaught of people coming after our faculty, and it corresponded directly with the period of budget uncertainty," Wilkin said.

"Other institutions saw us as vulnerable and they came to try to recruit our faculty."

He said it's too soon to say what might happen this year, as this is not an intensive recruiting period. Late winter and spring tend to be when much of the offers come in.

"I can think of good cases where we were able to keep people," he said.

Killeen noted that the university system, which includes all three campuses, has recruited 600 new faculty members in the last year, up from 400 the previous year.

Bill Bernhard, vice provost for academic affairs, said the campus does exit interviews with faculty who take other jobs, and also interviews those who opt to stay.

"With the people who leave, uncertainty about the state's situation did have a role to play," he said.

Those who stayed liked the intellectual community on campus and the interdisciplinary connections between departments. The campus is focusing on what it can do to enhance those connections and "all the things keeping people here," he said.

Andrew Belmont, a professor of cell and developmental biology, suggested looking at what it costs for a professor to run a lab at the UI.

"This has become one of the most expensive places in the country to do research," he said, both because of high graduate student tuition and fringe benefits for postdoctoral students, which are the same as for permanent employees. Those costs typically come out of a professor's research grant.

Belmont said he served on a committee that recommended improvements several years ago, but the report was tabled because of the administrative turnover on campus.

"I can tell you this is a big issue for junior faculty," he said.

Killeen urged professors and department heads to nominate stellar professors at other institutions for the UI's new Distinguished Faculty Recruiting program launched earlier this year. The university is providing millions of dollars to help departments fund startup packages to lure stars from other campuses.

"We haven't had a single nomination yet," he said.

Killeen and Chancellor Robert Jones struck an optimistic tone overall, citing the state budget resolution, enrollment growth and the kickoff of a new $2.5 billion fund drive among other positive indicators.

"We are financially stable; we are resilient," Jones said.

Jones said the new faculty recruitment program will help bring in more star faculty and pledged to work on the issue of salary competitiveness for current professors. The UI lost several percentage points compared with its peers over the past two years, he said.

The campus also plans to move forward with a new budget model next year, which is intended to make it less susceptible to deep cuts in state funding, he said.

Wilkin said he will share a "white paper" on the budget plan in the next few weeks. The plan is to transition to the new system gradually, he said.

Killeen thanked faculty members for "hanging in there, for believing in this institution, doing the work in the lab and the classroom. I think the darkest clouds have dissipated," he said.

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