Next Generation Profs

November 9, 2010

It was baptism by fire for Meredith Jung En-Woo. When she took over as the University of Virginia's dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences two years ago, the bottom was falling out of the economy, and – as for everyone – it was exactly the wrong time.

Faculty demographics suggested a cascade of retirements was approaching, even if they'd be delayed a few years as professors let their retirement savings accounts rebuild. The college had 88 tenured faculty members 65 or older, including 33 over the age of 70.

Woo recognized that there wasn't money in her budget to bring on a host of new faculty in anticipation of replacing those who would surely hang it up soon, but she also surmised that the same was true for a lot of other colleges with whom Virginia competes. It was a buyer's market, she thought.

Known for engendering fierce loyalty among its alumni, Virginia had a weapon many colleges don't. Woo figured she could quickly cobble together enough private donations to pay rock star faculty salaries for a few years, moving the new hires onto existing faculty lines once professors started retiring.

“What we wanted to do was take advantage of the very anemic environment that's out there, [luring] very good people that would be difficult to hire in other times,” she says.

At the outset of the economic crisis, many anticipated that the institutions that found resources could actually take advantage of the downturn. With extreme candor, Woo says that's exactly what Virginia did.

“The part of [the strategy] we think is wonderful is the ability to raid other institutions and get really good people,” she says.

And so, the Legacy of Distinction Fund was born. The $5 million pool, which the university expects to have raised by the end of December, will be used to hire about a dozen new professors over five years, each of whom is expected to replace an outgoing faculty member who has already declared an intention – in writing – to retire by a certain date. The overlap period of the new and retiring professor is expected to last three years.

There is more to Virginia's approach than mere opportunism. While Woo says the university is not locked into replacing one faculty member with another whose interests are identical, there is an expectation that the “legacy” hires will often have specializations similar to those of their predecessors, allowing them to enter into something of a mentoring relationship.

“The idea is predicated on the recruitment of top people actually being easier if we can nest it in the reputation of the person about to retire,” Woo says. “The [retiring] legend would be a pull – a real magnet – and this would be a nice kind of transition.”

Virginia is not alone in this strategy. Cornell University, for instance, is raising money for the Cornell Faculty Renewal Fund. The $100 million pool will be used to hire new faculty three to four years prior to the retirement of a senior professor.

Virginia has already made four legacy hires, among them Elizabeth Varon, a history professor who will be filling the line long held by Joseph Kett. Varon came to Virginia from Temple University, where she was a professor and associate director of the Center for Humanities. A specialist on the Civil War and the South, she's most recently the author of Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, which is Volume I of the Littlefield History of the Civil War Era series (Littlefield Fund for Southern History and University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2008).

Kett has similarly written about 18th and 19th Century America, and Varon will be teaching a popular course -- "American Intellectual and Cultural History" -- that Kett has taught for years.

Varon, who is packing up her books to leave Temple, says she noticed what a connection she already had to Virginia.

“Virtually every book on that shelf was a UVA book in one way or another,” she says.

Varon says Virginia would have been a “dream job” in any circumstance, but she likes the idea of spending some time with Kett and talking with him about how he works with students.

“I applaud the effort to be proactive,” she says. “This is a way of taking circumstances – industry-wide circumstances that are not advantageous – and turning them to advantage by seizing the moment to make hires.”

In so doing, however, Virginia has established a priority. While it may make sense to make these hires now, the question becomes whether raising $5 million for bridge hires of this sort makes more sense than serving some other need, says Robert Clark, a professor in North Carolina State University's College of Management, who has conducted several studies on the retirement patterns of faculty.

Surely there will be other institutions gunning for Virginia's own existing faculty, and one wonders whether retaining them is of equal or greater importance than bringing on extra professors in anticipation of retirements years away, Clark says.

“If Virginia put that $5 million toward people that have outside offers now, would keeping the faculty they have be a more appropriate use of those monies? If you looked at the books of the university, is this the best use of $5 million? I can't answer that question,” he says, “but if I were the provost or the chancellor I'd say, 'Prove this.' ”

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