University legislators focus on retaining faculty

By Marie Wilson

University officials say faculty members are not leaving at a higher rate than in the past. Yet faculty retention is still an issue, even a priority, for legislative groups like the Board of Trustees.

That is because losing faculty to other schools is not a problem that can be solved simply.

It is, however, a problem that occurs as a consequence of being a prestigious institution.

“Having faculty that are constantly being wooed by other universities goes with being a world-class university,” said John Ory, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. “We have very good faculty and unfortunately others want our very good faculty.”

Private universities may be in the best position to attract faculty away from the University because they have more funding to draw from when making offers, Ory said.

Money matters

John Lynn, professor of military history, said he is retiring at the end of this academic year and taking a part-time position at Northwestern University.

This is Lynn’s 31st year at the University and he said he is eligible for full retirement benefits – as long as he does not take a job at a state school in Illinois.

“I was consciously hoping to increase my salary by taking my retirement salary from Illinois and adding another on top of that,” Lynn said.

Lynn said he was once told that there are only two ways to earn a major salary increase without leaving the University: bringing in an outside offer and accepting an administrative position.

Lynn said this has proved somewhat true in his experience, because he has also been offered raises twice for doing his job well. He also increased his salary when the University exceeded an offer he received from National War College in 1999.

“It is pretty common for Illinois faculty to troll around for job offers whether or not they really want to leave,” Lynn said. “But it’s unwise to go looking for a job that you wouldn’t really want to take.”

Multiple reasons for decisions

Money is often one determining factor in a faculty member’s choice to stay or seek employment elsewhere, but co-worker dynamics and the prestige of a position are also important, said Nicholas Burbules, professor of education and chair of the Urbana-Champaign Senate’s executive committee.

“Salary is part of the equation,” Burbules said. “When someone makes the decision to leave, it’s for multiple reasons. It isn’t usually just one factor.”

For faculty in some departments, funding for research assistants and equipment also influences the decision, said Howard Guenther, associate vice chancellor for research. And for faculty members who have children, local schools and the community are also significant considerations, Burbules said.

“The quality of life, schools and health care in Champaign-Urbana tend to be positives,” he said. “A lot of people come here and find it is a good place to raise a family.”

University officials recognize that keeping faculty happy is about tangible as well as intangible elements, said Mrinalini C. Rao, vice president of academic affairs for the University of Illinois system.

Rao said being proactive and rewarding good teaching and research work is one way to avoid losing valued instructors. But that strategy doesn’t always work.

“I know a lot of good people who have left because they were feeling like they weren’t appreciated,” said Jenny Barrett, senior research programmer for the psychology department.

No ‘spike in people leaving’

The University currently has 2,035 tenure-track faculty members, professors who have either been here for five years and were approved for an indefinite contract through the tenure process, or who will be eligible to apply for tenure after their fifth year.

After the 2007 academic year, 80 tenure-track faculty left the University, according to records kept by the Provost’s Office. Of those who left, 39 retired and 41 did not retire.

Ory said these numbers usually reflect national economic trends, but they have been relatively stable in the past few years.

“I’m pleased to say with as bad as the economy has been in the past two or three years and the lack of good raises, we do not have a spike in people leaving,” Ory said. “If anything, it’s a little bit of a downward trend.”

The decline has occurred since 2003, when 125 tenure-track faculty left; 65 for retirement and 60 for other reasons.

The University stopped keeping statistics of how many faculty members receive outside offers and counteroffers about two years ago, Ory said.

“It makes it look like a lower percentage are given counteroffers because it’s a very deceiving number,” he said.

This is because many department heads will choose not to give a counteroffer when they know a faculty member has already decided to go to another institution.

In fiscal year 2006, the last year outside offer and counteroffer statistics were kept, 124 tenured faculty members received outside offers and 52 percent of those offers were not matched, according to the University Web site. More than 62 of those faculty members resigned.

Long-term budgeting

Retaining faculty is not only a hard goal to reach, but also a hard one to quantify, Rao said.

“We’re not saying that we want to keep 60 percent of our faculty,” Rao said. “That’s not how it works.”

Instead, University legislators set aside differing amounts of money each year to increase faculty salaries and work to keep valued professionals here.

Rao said the University of Illinois system began a five-year plan to increase faculty salaries and improve retention at the beginning of last academic year.

“The Board of Trustees is very concerned about the growing gap in faculty salaries,” Burbules said. “It’s not a secret that we are losing faculty to other universities, at least sometimes for salary reasons.”

Long-term budgeting is necessary to improve faculty retention because it is impossible to raise the salaries of every faculty member at the same time, Burbules said.