Faculty Retention Bits

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.


  1. Sometimes the worst part is when they want us to cater to their psychological needs as well as their material wants. If people bring in money and want extravagant material resources in return, well, I get it. If, however, they bring in money, teach less, want to focus narrowly on what they do in terms of teaching, service, and mentoring, but also want to have outsized input on everything else, my honest answer is that I hope they find that better job elsewhere and take it.

  2. Yup. In the humanities $$ is even more scarce, and the only real way to get a raise is to go on the market, get another offer, and hope that the university counters. The result is often a highly tiered salary system, which has very little to do with TALENT and more to do with ones ethics and desire to look for other employment. It’s gross. And we’ve absolutely had the system you describe above, with junior people coming in for a few years, taking advantage, and then leaving. Good for them, bad for the department.

  3. Absolutely. And then there’s the fallout from those irritated colleagues and deans: any request for more support from faculty who stayed is greeted with even more decisive turndowns–unless, of course, the faculty member is willing to be as massively unpleasant and demanding as the one who left.

  4. I wonder what it would be like to have any retention funds at all. I left a public university whose attitude was “don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out.” While I don’t think funds should be spent trying to keep people who don’t want to stay, there’s a sizeable subset of people who would stay if conditions were better. Fortunately for me, the door didn’t hit my arse and now I am a million times happier far away from them.

  5. This is timely for me. Surely someone with an external offer should ask for something, especially if that is the primary way to get things from one’s university. So – what should one think about when negotiating a retention offer that won’t alienate colleagues?

  6. gwinne: I think this has nothing to do with “ethics”: what would be unethical of trying to find the best conditions to do one’s job?

    Yes, many universities are not for profit, but surely they’re not charities: if they spend on someone, it is because they did the math and that’s what’s convenient. If Universities were to regularly lose money and resources when retaining faculty, they would be close by now (at least the private ones).

    Finally, the faculty no one needs to retain are exactly those doing very little, for the Dept/University, and in terms of research. I wish they had offers, I would surely push for not retaining them!

  7. Blah, I think it’s a matter of frequency. Also, how much noise one is making.

    Most people don’t think there’s anything wrong if a person goes out and gets offers every few years, which then lead to an adjustment to a competitive salary, and in the meantime does their job and is generally a good department citizen. No one but the chair and the higher ups even needs to know the colleague is negotiating a retention package.

    But there are colleagues who are constantly in the mode of whining about being underplaced, threatening to leave, continuously reminding everyone of how much money they bring in and how coveted they are by others, and generally not letting anyone forget for a second that they are in demand, important, and more than anything — very difficult.

    As for the ethical aspect of going out for external offers, people vary on this. Some say — you look out for yourself. Go out and get the best offer you, can even if you never seriously considered leaving, if that will improve your position at your home institution. I personally think this is dishonest and wasting everyone’s time to interview without seriously considering moving, just to get them to produce an offer letter. Perhaps I have been lucky, but my department has been very good about preemptively showing love to in-demand faculty. This works well for people who are described in the second paragraph of this comment – those who are generally content and do their jobs, but occasionally need adjustment in compensation or resources. However, for the colleagues described in the third paragraph of the comment, as well as in the main post, there is never such a thing as enough, because it’s not about real needs, it’s about drama and ego stroking.

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