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You Can't Eat Prestige

January 25, 2007

Conventional wisdom has it that private universities are better places to work than public universities. The pay can be significantly better and tight state budgets have forced many public institutions to minimize raises and enlarge classes.

But information released from a major research study of junior faculty satisfaction suggests that there are plenty of ways that public institutions -- and we're not just talking Berkeley and Michigan here -- can be among the most desirable places for young professors to work. The new data are from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a Harvard University-based project. And the data reinforce the idea that the days when universities could hope to satisfy professors with pay and prestige alone may be gone.

The collaborative, known as COACHE, last year released aggregate findings from its survey of thousands of faculty members at a few dozen participating institutions. That analysis found that junior professors placed increasing importance on issues such as the clarity of tenure policies or the availability of support for balancing work and family life when evaluating their job satisfaction. This week, the project is identifying the institutions in the study that are "exemplary" in six general areas and in global satisfaction. Institutions that did not do well are having their identities protected by COACHE. (The pool of colleges in COACHE is small, so there may well be many colleges -- and entire sectors of higher education, such as community colleges -- with junior professors who are even happier with their institutions. The institutions cited below should be viewed as doing well within one pool, and not necessarily as the best in the country.)

Five universities and one college were ranked exemplary in four of the seven categories. These institutions are Auburn, Brown, Ohio State and Stanford Universities; Davidson College; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Two universities (Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia) and two colleges (Goucher and Kenyon Colleges) were outstanding in three categories. Here is a table showing the exemplary institutions, based on the COACHE survey, which was only for faculty members starting their careers in tenure-track, full-time positions at colleges in the program.

Exemplary Colleges for Junior Faculty Members

Quality Liberal Arts Colleges Research/Doctoral Universities
Tenure clarity Davidson College
Kenyon College
Auburn University
Brown University
East Carolina University
North Carolina State University
Ohio State University
University of Kansas
Nature of work Davidson College
Denison University
Goucher College
Hamilton College
Brown University
Dartmouth College
Harvard University
Stanford University
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Policy effectiveness Denison University
Goucher College
Macalester College
Auburn University
Ohio State University
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Kansas
Compensation Hamilton College
Macalester College
Dartmouth College
Harvard University
Ohio State University
Stanford University
Work and family balance Davidson College
Goucher College
Wabash College
Wheaton College (Mass.)
Auburn University
Dartmouth College
Ohio State University
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Virginia
Collegiality Kenyon College
Wabash College
Auburn University
Brown University
Stanford University
Tufts University
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Virginia
Global satisfaction Davidson College
Kenyon College
Brown University
Stanford University
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Virginia

Cathy Trower, director of the COACHE study, said that she was most surprised and pleased to see public institutions holding their own in the rankings. In certain areas, like compensation and the nature of work, the wealth of private institutions gives them a real edge. (The edge may be slightly less than is apparent in compensation, as two institutions exercised their right not be identified there, and typically it is public institutions that don't want to appear on lists indicating that they pay well, out of fear that legislators will then say that they don't need more money.)

"I think there is the impression that privates are wealthier and pay more, but that's not all there is to it," Trower said.

She said that for younger faculty members, issues beyond pay and prestige are more and more important, and publics can compete with the Ivies if they are creative about their policies. "People are today saying, 'I'm not at Harvard and that's OK' as long as they have other things that are important to them, Trower added.

Generally, officials at the institutions that did well in the survey indicated that they had made policy changes to help young faculty members, and had additional changes in mind. "We recruit against the best research universities in the country, so we have tried to make our policies more family-friendly and more supportive," said Matthew S. Platz, vice provost for academic policy and faculty resources at Ohio State University.

Platz said, for example, that the university is moving to expand the fully paid sabbaticals it offers every seven years from one quarter to two quarters. In addition, the university -- following the model set out by Princeton University -- is changing the way it handles the process of gaining an extra year on the tenure clock for new parents. Instead of requiring people to ask for the extension, it will be granted automatically, to "remove the fear that someone may not be asking for it because of a perceived stigma," Platz said.

On issues of tenure clarity, Platz said that the university has added to orientation programs it offers both for new faculty members and for new chairs.

"I think people are looking at quality of life issues" in deciding where to accept offers, Platz said. "I think these issues are becoming as important as salary and prestige."

Trower said that location was also consistently an important factor for young faculty members is the issue of location, which she said is a proxy for many quality-of-life issues.

Auburn University may be gaining faculty job satisfaction as a result. Richard Penaskovic, a professor of religious studies and chair of the University Senate there, said he thinks his institution did well on the survey for a number of reasons: clear policies, a strong sense of collegiality among professors, and a push from new members of the board to improve academic quality. But he thinks location also helps -- and says this as someone who came to Auburn from the New York City area, not realizing when he first heard about the job what state Auburn is in.

"Young faculty members here can buy a home," he said. For $125,000 or so, a professor can buy a three-bedroom home on 3/4 of an acre of land -- and a junior faculty member's salary provides for the mortgage payments in a way that New York City junior professors can only dream about. "There are a lot of external reasons that people can be happy," he said.

 

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