Every so often I am reminded that money rules everything.
I am at a major public research university. It’s a very good school, and it has a lot to be proud of.
When we recruit, we try to recruit the best of the cohort. Often, we are successful. Alas, the more successful we are and the more stellar the faculty we are able to recruit are, the less able we are to retain them.
There are superstar faculty who stay here because of the quality of life, especially when their kids are young. Sometimes they leave eventually, in their 50’s or 60’s, once the kids are grown.
But there are those for whom professional ambition is insatiable. That’s not a bad thing. People are entitled to make whatever professional choices make the most sense. What is disconcerting is watching the exit process unfold.
The ambitious colleague becomes more and more demanding, requiring more and more gymnastics from the department, college, and university administration. Many of their needs get met. Funds for their salaries and equipment get raised via complicated intramural channels involving department chairs, deans, provosts, dozens of staff, and possibly people whose job is to find loose change between sofa cushions. Other faculty hear about the ordeal and are not crazy about it.
But it’s not enough. There are always more requests for everyone’s time, for more funds, for more of various things (lab space!) and less of various other things (teaching! service!).
At some point, there is simply no more money to be had. This is a public school — there are limits to how much of a raise or how much space or how much discretionary funds one can get.
The ambitious colleague moves, and leaves behind irritated colleagues who are tired of all the provisions that were made in the name of retention, an exhausted department chair, and a very dissatisfied dean.
I wish we could, when we interview, screen for “Is this person going to be a pain in the a$$ and waste the time of many people for many years, making them cater to their many whims; will this person deplete the good will towards the department and the retention funds that could have gone to someone who actually wanted to be retained?”
Some people say “Well, you got a good person even for a short amount of time. That’s better than not having recruited them at all.”
Sounds true in theory, right? I am not so sure, though. The first order effect is, yes, the good work that the good person has done; but, if they are junior or have been here for just a short while, it is questionable whether their limited presence is a marked net benefit to the department, considering that the department invested money into the startup package, and would take some time to make good on the investment. The second-order effects of having someone who is difficult on board include straining the budget, pissing everyone else off, and having multiple staff members spend time on servicing these extraordinary requests. When renormalized with the hassle, a lot of very difficult high fliers are not really highfalutin enough to justify continued retention maneuvers.
On occasion, the person is not being difficult, and makes a good case (infrequently!) for more money or equipment. This is where I wish we were able to afford to keep the colleagues and I envy the schools who swoop them away.