Faculty retention proves a major challenge for universities

Feb 16, 2012

Attracting and retaining the world's brightest students is on the mind of every university official. But a new, unprecedented study in the journal Science suggests leaders in higher education face an understated, even more pressing challenge: the retention of professors.

The good news, said Deborah Kaminski of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who led the study, is that men and in the areas of , technology, and engineering are being retained at the same rate. The one exception is in mathematics departments, where women faculty depart their significantly sooner than men.

However, looking at the bigger picture of the study—the first large-scale longitudinal study on faculty retention—reveals that of both genders stay at a university for a median of 11 years.

"This means if you hire 100 assistant tomorrow, in 11 years only 50 of them will still be at your school," said Kaminski, professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE) at Rensselaer. "This leakage rate is huge, and should be a big red flag to everyone in . The problem is particularly acute for research universities, where recruitment is expensive and competitive startup packages for new faculty members can be upward of $1 million."

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See a video of Kaminski talking about the study

Findings of the study will be published tomorrow by the journal Science in the paper "Survival Analysis of Faculty Retention in Science and Engineering by Gender." Co-author of the paper is Cheryl Geisler, dean of the faculty of art, communication and technology at Simon Fraser University. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Program.

Kaminski and Geisler tracked the professional progress of 2,966 individual assistant professors hired since 1990 in the fields of science and engineering at 14 universities in the United States—including Rensselaer and many Ivy League schools. With the help of student researchers, Kaminski and Geisler made digital archives of publicly available university catalogs and communications to follow the careers of these assistant professors. The research team noted when the assistant professors were promoted to associate professor, promoted to full professor, or departed the university. Discrepancies and missing data were sought out online or—as a last resort—with phone calls to the actual professors or their academic departments. While time intensive, this methodology allowed for the collection of richer, more accurate data than previous faculty retention studies, Kaminski said.

The researchers found men and women faculty are retained at about the same overall rate, except in mathematics, where men stay for a median of 7.3 years and women for 4.45 years—the difference of which is statistically significant, Kaminski said. The study did not investigate the specific reasons why the tracked faculty members departed their positions.

"On the whole, men and women faculty are being retained at the same rate. This is great news and an important step toward the goal of fostering gender diversity in science and engineering programs across the country. Something is working well," Kaminski said. "In the case of mathematics, we're not quite sure what's going on, but we're convinced it merits a closer look and further study."

The overall trend of faculty retention, however, is worrying, Kaminski said. The median time a faculty member stays at a university is 10.9 years, which effectively means the school has to replace half its faculty every 11 years. The recruiting process is time and cost intensive, and startup costs for new engineering or science professors can range from $110,000 to nearly $1.5 million. Additionally, assistant professors generally teach fewer courses per year, as they're expected to spend the bulk of their time writing proposals, securing grants, and launching their research program, Kaminski said. This means new faculty members are usually more expensive to employ for their first few years until they start attracting research funding.

"We think this study could be an important reference point to help obviate many practical and financial reasons for why all universities should arguably be spending more time, energy, and resources on retaining younger faculty," Kaminski said.

Overall, at the 14 universities represented in the study, about 27 percent of faculty members hired into science, engineering, and mathematics programs are women. This percentage is on the rise, but is unlikely to reach 50 percent before 2050, Kaminski said. Even after one half of all faculty members being hired are women, it will likely take at least another 40 years before the actual population of science, engineering, and mathematics professors is 50 percent women.

Kaminski leads the successful NSF-funded RAMP-UP Program at Rensselaer, which seeks to foster a university culture and climate that is supportive of all faculty members.

"I think a balanced, representative university faculty is very important for our students. We have a shortage in this country of people who choose to study science and engineering. To re-fill that pipeline, we need to look at the entire population. Women are recruited from high schools into science, engineering, and programs at a lower rate than men. To help fix this problem, we need a population that looks almost identical to the population of our country. The same is true for recruiting more students from underrepresented minorities into science and engineering. If we want the United States to retain its technological leadership into future generations, we need to make sure the fields of science and engineering are accessible to everyone," Kaminski said.

Explore further: How does calling, texting and emailing affect teens socially?

More information: "Survival Analysis of Faculty Retention in Science and Engineering by Gender," by D. Kaminski, Science, 2012. www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6070/864.abstract

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User comments : 13

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Ferky
2 / 5 (4) Feb 16, 2012
How did such a boring, unimportant paper find its way to the prestigious Science Magazine?
To answer that question, follow the political agenda: "I think a balanced, representative university faculty is very important for our students. ... To re-fill that pipeline, we need to look at the entire population. Women are recruited from high schools into science, engineering, and mathematics programs at a lower rate than men. To help fix this problem, we need a faculty population that looks almost identical to the population of our country. The same is true for recruiting more students from underrepresented minorities into science and engineering."

Affirmative action in yet another guise. This is what passes for science nowadays.
Squirrel
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 16, 2012
Ferky raises a good question having just looked at that current issue in which it now appears. It is boring and says what most would reasonably guess--it did not even seek to understand the reasons why faculty left. Space is limited in Science--one wonders what major paper got shunted into some low rank journal to make way for this "rocket science".
Irene_Bea
not rated yet Feb 16, 2012
Predicting anything 40 years away is impossible, a 100 year prediction is ridicules.
hyongx
5 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2012
"it will likely take at least another 40 years before the actual population of science, engineering, and mathematics professors is 50 percent women"

This will never happen.
AWaB
1 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2012
"it will likely take at least another 40 years before the actual population of science, engineering, and mathematics professors is 50 percent women"

This will never happen.


It would require a cultural shift and robots to take care of the babies!
Lurker2358
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 17, 2012
"it will likely take at least another 40 years before the actual population of science, engineering, and mathematics professors is 50 percent women"

This will never happen.


It would require a cultural shift and robots to take care of the babies!


Precisely.

The whole notion that we should expect a 50/50 balance in anything is completely ridiculous.

Women's bodies are designed to take care of baby. So of course you'd expect women to have more leave time, and change careers more often in general.

It's natural and there's nothing wrong with natural.
semmsterr
not rated yet Feb 17, 2012
What would really solve the problem is decoupling teaching from flesh-and-blood teachers. AI. How long 'til the Singularity?
Ferky
1 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2012
The most outrageous claim in this piece is that "To help fix this problem, we need a faculty population that looks almost identical to the population of our country."

Why stop with gender and race, then? We should require that a certain fraction of faculty be gay, overweight, redheaded, born in Ghana, and have a defective BRCA2.

Arguments for affirmative action are perforce absurd, and the best way to demolish them is by reductio ad absurdum.

psychdoc
not rated yet Feb 18, 2012
How did such a boring, unimportant paper find its way to the prestigious Science Magazine?


It describes one indicator of the status and well-being of science itself.

The amount of unfettered projection in the rest of the quoted comment, and some of the other comments to-date, is rather impressive. Unfounded assertions reveal the rules by which you yourself live.
Ferky
1 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2012
The amount of unfettered projection in the rest of the quoted comment, and some of the other comments to-date, is rather impressive. Unfounded assertions reveal the rules by which you yourself live.


I was about to write "you must be a psych major" and then I saw your username. Tell me, did you write that yourself, or do you have a software that does that, you know, like The Postmodernism Generator?
kochevnik
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
In Russia we have solved the problem of school retention: http://www.youtub...j9R2DzQU
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
In Russia we have solved the problem of school retention: http://www.youtub...j9R2DzQU


I'd just have to smile a lot and nod, because I can't even tell where one word ends and the next begins in Russian.

Plus songs tend to be more poetic and slang, so it's probably not even proper usage. I'd be lost.
XQZME
1 / 5 (2) Mar 11, 2012
Additionally, assistant professors generally teach fewer courses per year, as they're expected to spend the bulk of their time writing proposals, securing grants, and launching their research program, Kaminski said.
This is the reason there are so many assistant professors supporting Global Warming and not revealing that 9100 of the last 10,500 years were warmer than now or that global temperature has been declining since 1998 and sea level since 2007.
We need more universities where the faculty is devoted to teaching the results of research done in private corporations, foundations, and research institutes on a competitive basis. That done by university professors is mostly redundant, ineffective and cost ineffective.