Will They Stay or Will They Go?

May 09, 2006

April is a good month for real estate near college campuses. Come spring, faculty members who have secretly searched for better jobs all fall and winter aggressively publicize their departures by circulating e-mail messages with photos of houses they have to vacate by May.

They reassure colleagues that their leaving reflects no animus toward their current department, but rather the opportunity that their new university represents. Still, they can't leave town fast enough.

But before they do, they must finish the academic year. For another month, they continue to attend faculty meetings, teach classes, and chat in the hallways. Those of us staying behind try to minimize the awkwardness by asking our departing colleagues about their future courses and colleagues. Departing faculty members avoid impropriety by staying silent on decisions of departmental governance that won't affect them.

In three of my four years as an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma, I've danced that careful ballet each spring with colleagues who give up tenure-track jobs here for positions at another university. Other departments face the same annual exodus. One spring semester, four political scientists announced that they were leaving; registration for fall classes had already begun, forcing the department to cancel several courses and juggle others.

When a long-distance couple secures two tenure-track jobs at the same university or a professor finds employment near an ailing parent, I am genuinely happy for them. At the same time, their departure means that next year those of us remaining will go through another round of applications, interviews, and decisions.

Academics agree that job searches merit our time because selecting our own colleagues gives us control over the intellectual development of our departments. Having seen it from the hiring side, I am confident that, though bureaucratic, the search process identifies the best-qualified candidates. Still, after losing so many faculty members, many committees are tempted to favor candidates who they believe will stick around.

A persistent yet usually unspoken question haunts committee deliberations: "Will this person stay here?" It appears disguised as comments about whether someone will be a good fit or will find appropriate resources on the campus. Some faculty members scrutinize letters of recommendation for clues.

Unfortunately, in that guessing game, we have only stereotypes to go on. Applicants from elite coastal universities face a disadvantage on our campus since we assume that they could not last long without abundant organic produce and independent bookstores. Openly gay and lesbian candidates confront an even higher barrier in our politically conservative state. After one department at my university lost two gay professors in consecutive years, some could conclude that young gay faculty members will not stay here.

Such profiling of potential colleagues not only borders on discrimination, but also compromises the integrity of our academic mission. Hiring decisions should take into account only the relevant scholarly merits of the candidates. We should also acknowledge that losing professors need not be an inevitable rite of spring.

First, our hiring practices make us complicit in the problem. In the searches I have participated in, graduate students yet to complete their dissertations rarely make the list of finalists. Candidates on postdoctoral fellowships or already in tenure-track jobs seem like safer bets since they come with teaching evaluations and more advanced publishing records. Therefore, when other search committees use the same logic to tap tenure-track professors on our faculty, we cannot claim surprise. If departments would give more serious consideration to ABD candidates, poaching faculty members would be less common.

A second suggestion may be easier to implement. We now require professors -- as a condition of receiving a sabbatical or a summer research grant -- to agree to remain at the university for an additional year. By contrast, when new faculty members join the university, they make no similar commitment. It struck me as odd that when I started at Oklahoma the university agreed to pay my moving expenses and offer start-up money but did not require me to stay any longer than it took to set up my e-mail account.

I understand the need for flexibility on both sides during a professor's probationary period, but junior faculty members and universities alike would benefit from a contract. In exchange for a summer stipend or guaranteed course release, a tenure-track professor would sacrifice some mobility for a few years. The department, in turn, could ensure that searches won't consume so much of their time.

As another writer pointed out in a recent column, a "loyalty tax" rewards those faculty members who actively seek to leave their institutions. To boost their salary beyond incremental merit raises, professors must go on the job market and threaten to accept a position elsewhere. At my university, merely being invited to interview at another campus can trigger a "preemptive" counteroffer by the administration. The current incentive structure condemns both professors and departments to endless cycles of job searching. But preemption can also work to reverse the loyalty tax. By offering additional resources to faculty members who agree not to play the job market, universities can promote loyalty while allowing those of us who stay to focus on home improvement, not house hunting.

Peter S. Cahn is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.