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.