Monday, March 14, 2016


Mobility Looks Different From Here

Apparently, the California State University system has commissioned an “exit survey” to identify why faculty leave.  The idea is to help reduce unwanted departures and the various costs of attrition.

Faculty mobility (that is, among full-time faculty) is a very different issue in community colleges than in research universities.  

Here, the idea of “poaching superstars” is relatively rare.  Community college faculty superstars are excellent teachers who work wonders for students; that skill set is less marketable than research.  It isn’t portable in the same sense that grant-funded projects are.

In my experience, full-time faculty who leave do so for one or more of the following three reasons: a better offer, family/relationship considerations, or retirement.  In (cough) years of community college administration, I can’t recall a single time that a faculty member was poached by a peer institution for the same role.  (I can recall one in which a faculty member was actively recruited for an administrative role, but that’s a different issue.)  I’ve never heard any of my counterparts mention it, either.  From what I can tell, it’s vanishingly rare.

The “better offer” category usually applies to minority candidates, who attract offers from four-year schools with lower teaching loads and higher salaries.  I haven’t seen the poaching done by a peer institution.

If too much mobility is an issue at elite institutions, too little mobility may be an issue here.

The IHE piece presents faculty mobility as a challenge for institutions, and it can be.  But it can also be a way for someone who just isn’t happy in one setting to find another in which she can thrive.  That unhappiness could stem from any number of things: personality conflicts, geographic distance from loved ones, salary, or whatever.  But an unhappy person with tenure can be unhappy in place for a very long time.  And in a sector in which “senior hires” for faculty are very much the exception, that unhappy person may be essentially stuck.  That serves neither the professor nor the institution well.

The administrative job market is very different.  At this level, mobility is assumed; in fact, it’s pretty much a given that you have to be willing to uproot and move several times.  That can be an issue for those of us with school-aged children.  But at least it offers the possibility that if the winds shift at a given place, or if family needs change, you can test the waters.  On the faculty side, that’s not usually true.

I’m not sure if there’s a ready fix for the lack of mobility.  Good teaching isn’t unique in the sense that, say, authorship of a good book is.  Given community college budgets, the idea of regularly hiring faculty at the senior level is pretty much a non-starter, though I would love at least to have the option.  In most industries, turnover is a driver of hiring.  With tenure protecting incumbents, and no mandatory retirement age, turnover is lower, which drives hiring lower.  If we were in more of a growth mode, it might be possible to have both stability for incumbents and opportunities for mobility.  But in the mode we’re in, I don’t see it.

Strikingly, I don’t recall ever seeing a study of full-time faculty mobility at the community college level.  Does anyone know of any?  I suspect it would reach very different conclusions than the ones at the university level.  In the absence of such a study, I’d just caution against solving the wrong problem.  

I suspect that in the current environment, most tenured faculty in research-oriented colleges and universities are relatively immobile. Unless you are a research superstar with a ton of grant support money who is working in a field that is currently hot, you are probably stuck at your present institution for the rest of your life. One might think that a tenured faculty member should be fairly well satisfied in their current situation, since they have what is effect lifetime job security. But I have heard of a lot of tenured faculty who are extremely dissatisfied. They find academic politics to be extremely petty and mean, where they have to fight with just about everybody over even trivial and inconsequential matters. They find that their budgets are continually being cut, that they are forced to do more and more with less and less. Their teaching loads keep going up and up, and their salaries remain fairly stationary. They find that they have to pay more and more out of their own pockets for their medical insurance and retirement benefits. They feel that the administration treats them as if they were dispensable cogs in some sort of mindless machine, that the deans and vice presidents regard them as nothing more that excessive cost items, ones that they would like to eliminate if they could. The institution becomes more and more corporate with each passing year, where everything is about money. Time to bail out and try something different, they come to believe.

A friend of mine, who was a tenured faculty member teaching math at Research Intensive Technological Institute, remarked to me that he wanted out. He felt that the administration was simply waiting for him to die, so that they could get him off their rolls and save a whole bunch of money. He quit teaching and got into administration.

One might think that the administration might want to try and persuade a departing faculty member to stay on. But the administration is probably thinking: “Oh, goodie! We can replace him or her with a couple of adjunct part timers, where we won’t have to pay for benefits.”

Boy, is this a key comment: “Oh, goodie! We can replace him or her with a couple of adjunct part timers, where we won’t have to pay for benefits.”

I taught in a school of business (AACSB-accredited, so it was fairly difficult to indiscriminately replace FT with PT faculty). As noted in the previous comment as well, salaries aren't exactly rising at a blistering pace for FT faculty. (In my last dozen years as a FT faculty member, my inflation-adjusted salary *fell* by nearly 15%.) Replacing a retiring--or moving-on FT faculty member can frequently mean paying more for an early-career hire than a school is currently paying a late-career incumbent. (Not in my case, although it was close--my replacement got paid about 15% less than I was making; the last time we hired an accounting professor, however, we paid nearly 15% *more* than the retiring incumbent had been earning). (All of this is likely to be more characteristic of the sort of institution at which I taught, obviously, than at an R-1. However, I have a good friend who recently retired from an R-1 who taught business law. Their new hire was paid about 10% more than she had been earning as a tenured full.)

So whatever the downside lack of mobility might have for faculty, increased mobility could have some unfortunate budgetary consequences for institutions as well.
I haven't seen a problem with mobility for good faculty in the CC world. It could be harder in the R1 world because of a lack of turnover. It is also easier now that colleges have shifted to a defined contribution plan rather than a defined benefit plan. The latter rewards staying at the same place.

I've seen very few instances where a superstar got poached. You don't have head hunters on the academic side (although they are common even in CC admin searches), so that only happens when a university wants to create a new program and goes looking for faculty to create it. As you noted, that is only in the R1 world.

It is more common that top faculty put themselves on the market because they are unhappy with the level of pay or support they are getting. That has to be the concern of the Cal State system, and it is what you left out on the CC side. My college has lost faculty who were unhappy with the way the institution is being run or the distance from family or friends, and some even got multiple offers for a similar position at a CC or a regional (teaching emphasis) university.

There are good reasons why a college should have some truly neutral exit interview system so they can get an earful on why someone retired early and then took a job at a local private college.
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