Carpe Diem on Faculty Hiring?

Yale's arts and sciences faculty wants the institution to seize the day on faculty hiring, but wealthy institutions continue to practice restraint -- maybe even for the long term.

January 5, 2021
 
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Yale University says it is doing more hiring this academic year than it planned during the pandemic. But that falls short of the hiring activity that faculty members want to see: in a months-long campaign, they’ve argued that hiring freezes during COVID-19 are not just damaging to Yale but also unnecessary.

Indeed, Yale’s budget has fared relatively well since the university announced a yearlong hiring freeze at the pandemic’s onset. In a financial update this fall, Scott Strobel, provost, and Jack Callahan, a senior vice president, said that results for the fiscal year that ended in June were “better than expected, thanks to the work of faculty and staff across campus who restrained spending” and other factors.

How much better than expected? The pandemic cost Yale more than $250 million in lost revenue and other expenses. Yet the university still ended the fiscal year with an operating budget surplus of $125 million. Yale’s endowment, which contributes to the annual budget, also saw a 6.8 percent investment return.

Universities continue to be loath to tap into their endowments for extra pandemic relief. But a $125 million budget surplus is significant.

Strobel and Callahan said that 89 percent of the surplus is tied up in reserve balances in individual campus accounts, and anything remaining is a “buffer” for the rest of this year. Still, they announced that Yale was “partially lifting” the freeze on faculty recruitment, to the tune of at least 60 new and continuing faculty searches across the professional schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

This was good news to many faculty members who vocally opposed any freeze on hiring. Even so, it wasn’t enough: Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate wants the university to be bold, not so cautious.

At an April Senate meeting, for instance, John Geanakoplos, James Tobin Professor of Economics, said that Yale has emerged from earlier crises richer than before and that there was no need to “panic” about potential lost wealth.

Earlier crises also show Yale shouldn't cut things that are “crucial” to its core teaching and research missions, such as hiring and salaries, Geanakoplos said. Doing so previously has inhibited growth, as it’s an “illusion” that Yale can make up for lost hiring later when things return to normal.

To "pause" hiring, he added, is to take a step backward.

Several members of the Senate declined to speak on the record about these concerns, but meeting minutes show that they continued to lobby administrations to normalize or even boost hiring throughout the fall.

Geanakoplos, for instance, said at an October Senate meeting, “I hope the Yale administration will listen to the science of financial crises and take the right calculated risk to deal with the COVID financial crisis.”

Yale, he continued, is “unlikely in the next 50 years to have so good an opportunity to make progress in faculty excellence and diversity as it has right now.” Many peer institutions, especially public ones, continue to face the financial fallout of COVID-19, and so Yale’s “opportunity is now huge,” Geanakoplos urged. “Seize it … Seeing an opportunity while having the money at the same time is truly extraordinary.”

Geanakoplos’s blunt analysis -- even in the name of institutional excellence -- may be jarring to the many who have lost jobs during COVID-19, or who were already struggling on the poor academic job market. But it certainly raises questions about why institutions that don’t necessarily have to chill hiring continue to do so, and what the consequences are.

Was It Worth It?

Putting things into some perspective, Geanakoplos also said that the $250 million Yale lost as a result of COVID-19 represents one day’s average fluctuation in the value of the endowment. The salary freeze that accompanied the hiring freeze, meanwhile, saved the Faculty of Arts and Sciences $5 million.

“Was running a $125 million surplus instead of $120 million worth freezing salaries of an underpaid faculty?” Geanakoplos asked. “Why of all years would we want to run a surplus?”

Meg Urry, Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, spoke of the sciences, in particular, at that October meeting.

“Now is the time to be bold, to move when others cannot, to think big,” she said. “We should invest in hiring exciting new science faculty, at both the junior and senior levels, and we should embrace bold initiatives that make us more attractive to those scientists.”

Urry said that Yale could make graduate student stipends and tuition free to faculty members, paying for them outright, or “develop a world-class program for brilliant postdoctoral scholars that is prestigious, interdisciplinary and inclusive.” These scholars would move on and “send us their best students and help build our reputation. We could start an Institute for Advanced Studies. We could say yes to great ideas rather than, as is more often the case, ‘no, sorry, we’re not Caltech.’”

Eventually Senate members sent a letter to the administration urging more hiring, gathering hundreds of signatures from their colleagues.

In response, Tamar Szabó Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote to a memo to the faculty saying, “The president, provost, and I concur with the letter’s fundamental premise: As the result of sound endowment management, Yale is in a distinctive position to pursue its mission, advance the quality of its departments and programs, and improve its academic position.”

Far from being frozen, Gendler said, “our search activity during 2020-21 lies solidly in the typical range. We are conducting more than 40 searches across the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences]. And despite the untimely curtailment of our 2019-20 search season, we brought 30 new ladder faculty to our FAS ranks this year, only five below our standard intake of 35, with 10 additional faculty from last year’s searches already committed to joining us next fall.”

Current faculty searches are “configured to engage strategically with the opportunities of this unusual moment,” Gendler continued. Those include searches in five of six engineering and applied sciences departments, along with many sciences, social science and humanities departments and programs. Multiple searches in African American studies and ethnicity, race and migration continue, as well. About a third of all searches involve targeted senior candidates who had been previously identified by a department or program.

This is more hiring activity than the arts and sciences faculty expected. Yet faculty members point out that searches don’t always translate to hires, so the net impact of this apparent thaw remains to be seen.

Beyond Yale

Yale, of course, isn’t the only wealthy institution continuing to practice some restraint.

The California Institute of Technology, for instance, has required additional review, approval and “great care” for all hires since April. A salary freeze is in place, as well.

Geoffrey A. Blake, professor of cosmochemistry and planetary sciences and chemistry and chair of the faculty at Caltech, said he’s aware that “a number of my colleagues in Faculty Senate leadership across the country are concerned” about stalled hiring. Yet Caltech is in somewhat better shape than many of its peers, Blake said, as it relies heavily on federal grant support, for which 2020 was a banner year.

While faculty onboarding might be slightly affected due to the pandemic, he said, that's “due to the pace of finding and negotiating with candidates, not any hard restrictions from the institute leadership.”

Stanford University said that its consolidated net assets increased by $2 billion in 2020, as COVID-19's financial blow was mitigated by cost-saving efforts, federal relief funding to its hospitals, and donations. Despite a decline in operating revenues, there was a budget surplus of $41 million. The university’s endowment rose in value by 4.5 percent, to $28.9 billion.

Stanford’s salary freeze and faculty and staff hiring holds nevertheless continue -- save some exceptions, such as hires related to the university’s IDEAL fellows program on race and ethnicity and cluster hires for leading scholars on the impact of race in America.

Blakey Vermeule, Albert Guérard Professor in Literature and vice chair of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee at Stanford, said her administration has prioritized avoiding staff layoffs and protecting departmental quality. (Previously, Stanford laid off 208 support employees and put 30 on furlough.)

As for Stanford’s financial gains during the pandemic, Vermeule said, “There’s a massive disconnect between the stock market and the rest of the economy,” and that Stanford is right to proceed with caution.

“This is residential education institution that also has a very, very large in-person research operation, and both of those are partially shut down,” she said.

Going forward, Vermeule said she expected hiring to “thaw” slowly.

Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting and business development at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, said that “most institutions have moved to a model that requires more sets of approvals” before the position can be posted and filled.

This approach makes sense during COVID-19, of course. But Hundrieser said that even before the pandemic, institutions were already heading “towards a more thoughtful practice related to hiring for new or replacing open positions.”

“Most people understand we have to find ways to lessen cost increases,” Hundrieser said. “To do that, we have to be more strategic in what positions we elect to fill and when.”

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