• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


People Are Infrastructure, Part II: Poaching

Colleges and universities lose talented people because, increasingly, campus opportunities are not competitive with options elsewhere.

December 7, 2016

“Researchers,” reports the Wall Street Journal (24 Nov 2016; subscription required)  “warn that tech companies are draining universities of the scientists responsible for cultivating the next generation of researchers and who contribute to solving pressing problems in fields ranging from astronomy to environmental science to physics.

The WSJ article references a number of prominent computer/cyber science (CS) academics who recently migrated to corporate campuses.  It also cites data from the National Science Foundation indicating that almost three-fifths (57 percent) of new CS PhDs now take industry jobs, compared to just 38 percent a decade ago.  Admittedly, the actual number of CS doctorates remains low compared to other tech/STEM fields – just 1,826 CS PhDs in A/Y 2013, compared to 9,356 PhDs in engineering.  Still, that the majority of new CS doctorates now pursue corporate rather than academic positions is striking and says much about the assessment of resources, compensation, and advancement opportunities in the corporate sector compared to academic departments and campus labs.

This migration of CS personnel from academe to industry understandably prompts rising concern about the essential talent in computer science (and related fields) in research universities in particular, and in higher education, in general.  As the need for cyber science research explodes and the demand for computer science courses and degrees grows at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the migration of critical academic talent to industry means a shortage of CS talent in campus labs and classrooms

Yet the migration (or poaching) of technology talent from campus to corporation is not new, and should not be surprising. Indeed, the  “brain drain” of CS, engineering, and bio-medical talent from campus to corporation has occurred for decades. And, again, it speaks clearly to a growing  “opportunity gap” between campus and corporations.

In the realm of computer science and information technology, the talent migration from campus to corporation was, in essence, anticipated in 1963 by Clark Kerr, at that time the president of the University of California.  (Kerr was one of the nation's foremost academic leaders of the past fifty years.)  A labor economist by training, Kerr thoughtfully predicted the impending arrival of the “knowledge” economy in the second half of the 20th Century, and the key role and essential contribution of universities to the impending transformation the American and global economy.

The catalytic role of universities and higher education in the knowledge economy is a classic example of when they build it, we will come.  And over the past 50 years, consumers and corporations have, indeed, come: for the technology, for technology training, and for the people in universities and elsewhere in higher education who have created, taught, or serviced technologies that originated in university labs and that are widely deployed across higher education.

It is not just faculty and researchers who have migrated from academic to corporate campuses. Today the middle and executive ranks of technology firms are also populated with individuals whose resumes list prior employment across all sectors of higher education. This is particularly true of firms that provide IT resources and services to higher education.

Campus CIOs and senior IT officers, like many deans and department chairs, recognize that money is a key part of the campus IT talent retention challenge.  Fully 75 percent of the CIOs and senior IT officers who participated in the 2016 Campus Computing Survey report that  “salaries [for campus IT personnel] are not competitive with off-campus opportunities,” while 63 percent agree/strongly agree that "IT funding at their institution has not fully recovered from the budget cuts” experienced over the past four-six years.

Sadly, the solution is obvious but the problem is not easily resolved.  If deans and senior institutional officials hope to retain technology talent in campus labs, classrooms, and the IT infrastructure, then campus leaders must find a way to provide competitive opportunities and compensation for the people who are the essential component of the campus technology infrastructure.

Sidebar:  Although he was a serious scholar of higher education, Clark Kerr was also the source of some great quips about campus culture and the challenges that confront academic leaders.


Follow me on Twitter:   @digitaltweed


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