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Preparing for the Future Faculty

April 18, 2006

Any period of significant change creates both opportunities and problems -- often flip sides of the same coin. So it is with the twin pressures that expanding numbers of enrolling students and of faculty retirements are putting on many colleges in many regions of the country -- and the solution for turning potential problems into opportunities is intelligent long-term planning undertaken cooperatively by campus business and academic officials, several higher education leaders said in a Web seminar Monday.

The session, "Finding and Funding the Next Generation of Faculty: An Academic and Financial Partnership," which was sponsored by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the American Council on Education, and the TIAA-CREF Institute, took as its starting point the idea of a professoriate in significant flux: aging,  increasingly shifting to positions that are part-time and off the tenure track, diversifying racially (though not as much as many institutions would like), and featuring ever-greater numbers of women, intensifying the tension between work and home life.

Those changes in the landscape, combined with the fact that many institutions face faculty shortages because of the combination of retirements of current professors and a wave of new enrollments from the Baby Boom echo, make it imperative for colleges to be strategic in their hiring, said Cathy A. Trower, co-principal investigator of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a major Harvard University research project. Having the faculty in the right positions at the right time and at the right price involves real collaboration between the chief academic officer and the chief financial officer, among other campus officials," said Trower.

Officials from two very different institutions -- the University of North Carolina system and Occidental College -- laid out the steps they had taken to plan for the future of their own faculties, on very different scales.

Betsy E. Brown, associate vice president for academic affairs for the 16-campus North Carolina system, described the mammoth job officials there have undertaken during a 10-year campaign, begun in 2000, to hire about 1,000 professors a year, about two-thirds to replace retirees and the rest to meet enrollment growth. The system expected its 2000 enrollment of 168,000 to rise to 218,000 by 2010.

Because the system's campuses themselves vary widely in mission and circumstance, including top-tier research institutions like Chapel Hill and campuses dedicated mostly to teaching, such as UNC-Asheville and Elizabeth City State University, the system office has largely focused its efforts on pushing the individual institutions to be "much more reflexive and reflective in looking at the number and roles of their own faculty," Brown said. "We want them to conduct regular analyses to determine the appropriate mix of faculty" -- full time vs. part time, tenured and not, etc. -- "to achieve their missions and maintain quality."

The system has also conducted significant research aimed at arming its campuses with good information with which to make those decisions, and promoted systemwide policies aimed at giving the individual campuses more flexibility, Brown said. It has paid particular attention to a program of "phased retirement" that recognizes that senior faculty, "far from being deadwood, as they are often portrayed," are very stimulated by the intellectual challenge of their jobs and by their desire to contribute to the development of students," Brown said.

The North Carolina system has put in place policies on sick and disability leave for professors, stopping the tenure clock and sabbaticals and prodded campuses to conduct more thorough and effective exit interviews, Brown said, and plans to create a task force this year to confront the thorny knot of "work-life issues" that are crucially important to the Generation Xers flowing into the professoriate now.

And it proposed a pilot program to deal with what the system’s surveys show is the No. 1 concern of many professors: health insurance.  The state's health plan is not competitive compared to that offered by other universities. And in a survey of faculty members over 50 years old, health insurance was rated as the highest concern senior faculty had about retirement, “even though we have an incredibly rich retiree health plan” through the state of North Carolina. “There’s no question that this is an important benefit all through the faculty career, especially at the beginning and especially at the end,” said Brown.

With 1,800 students and about 175 faculty members, Occidental College is miles apart from the North Carolina system in ways other than geography. Yet while the private institution in Los Angeles does not plan to grow in size, it does expect half its faculty to retire over the next 15 years, and so it, too, needs an intelligent and strategic approach to faculty hiring, said Harold Hewitt Jr., the college's vice president for administration and finance.

Occidental has undertaken its new hiring -- nearly 11 percent of its faculty turned over at the start of the 2005-6 academic year -- with a few key principles in place, Hewitt said, including maintaining its commitment to full-time, tenured professors and continuing a faculty-led effort to increase diversity.

Like the North Carolina system, Occidental, recognizing that "the competition [for faculty hiring] will be severe going forward," said Hewitt, has invested time and money in trying to understand and address the needs of would-be candidates. Some of those concerns mirror those Brown cited at North Carolina: post-retirement health benefits (which Occidental does not now offer, though it is considering a defined benefit plan to which employees could contribute) and sabbatical time (candidates seem to like the policy the college adopted a decade ago that provides a semester of release time after six terms, instead of a full year after six years, because they can use it to do research that can help them earn tenure, Hewitt said).

Like many institutions in the Los Angeles area, Occidental faces special problems related to affordable housing, and so it is considering creating a "land-lease program" as a way of subsidizing professors' home purchases.

The college's big challenges, Hewitt said, are easing the salary compression in which the pay of newly hired junior faculty members has crept ever closer to that of senior professors, and trying to limit the crush of procedural and other pressures (such as too many people seeking tenure) that hiring a relatively large number of professors at the same time could place on Occidental's department chairs and its administrative structures.

One way to do that -- which reflects Trower's view that campus business and academic officers need to work together on faculty hiring -- is to try to "flatten out" the amount of hiring that Occidental does in a typical year, which Hewitt said would tend to vary from as few as one to as many as eight or nine in successive years. Hewitt's finance department has crafted a formula that shows, he said, that "it does make financial sense to go ahead and hire faculty earlier than you needed" in certain years to try to even out the hiring over a period of time.

 

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