October 25, 2007

A New Faculty Era?

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With Cornell currently in the midst of a rapid turnover of retirees to new professors, issues regarding salaries, tenure clarity, quality of life and academic reputation — all of which surround the hiring process — are increasingly being placed under the magnifying glass. A study conducted by the Harvard-based Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education shows that while private institutions may generally have better compensation, more impressive reputations and smaller class sizes, public universities tend to have the edge in tenure clarity and faculty satisfaction. So where does Cornell, an anomaly in its blend of private and public education, stand?
Between the public contract colleges and privately endowed colleges within the University itself, funding — including funding for faculty — is not shared, according to Provost Biddy Martin. Since contract colleges do receive a significant portion of their budget for faculty and staff from the state, they have been adversely affected in the past when state funding was reduced, a consequence the COACHE study alludes to.
“It does sometimes happen that there are state cuts and that puts a strain on the salaries [of contract college faculty] … It has meant lower salary increases, less searches, reductions in the number of faculty,” Martin said.
In 2006, faculty in contract colleges earned, on average, $121,250 annually as opposed to $128,950 for faculty in endowed colleges. Martin emphasized, however, that the extent of state funding, and thus contract college salaries, follows cycles. Across the board, Cornell strives to maintain relatively uniform procedures in hiring and faculty salaries despite fluctuations.
“There are differences in the average compensation between endowed and contract colleges, but when you look at the data by field, the disparities tend to not be that large,” she said. “The benefits [in hiring] don’t really get distributed according to contract versus endowed but according to the field … The strength of the field is the single biggest factor.”
Carolyn Ainslie, vice president of planning and budget, added that faculty salaries at Cornell are “largely driven by competitive market position for that discipline informed by internal equity.”
Ken Fuchs, dean of the College of Engineering, agreed that hiring procedures among all colleges is fairly uniform. While the COACHE study generalizes public and private universities and their respective strengths, citing higher salaries as a prime private advantage in attracting professors, Fuchs believes that a school’s status itself as public or private is a limited factor in its success, both within Cornell and beyond.
“In engineering, in the top 10, approximately half are public and half are private … Both the process of hiring and salaries are very similar,” Fuchs said.
“[Other universities] are trying to recruit the same people as we are, and our main difference is the quality of people that are here — that’s the students, faculty, and staff … In some areas we have salaries that are leading, in other areas we’re behind, but [other universities] pay very similar amounts,” he added.
No matter how hiring is played out, the reality is that more than one-fifth of the faculty have turned over in the past four years, a trend that will continue over the next five or more years, according to Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
To attract the best professors, Cornell has attempted to improve itself in several areas mentioned by the COACHE study.
One undertaking was a faculty salary program begun six years ago in order to increase compensation.
“We achieved our goals over the course of that initiative … Our salaries are closer to what they are citing in the article as the median or average salary for the privates,” Martin said.
The article cited the average salary for professors at private doctoral universities as $30,000 more than those at publics. At baccalaureate institutions, the difference between professors’ salaries at publics and privates was listed at $14,000. Cornell is a private doctoral university.
In addition, Martin has been working with the deans of each college to elucidate the tenure process.
According to the COACHE study, public institutions often outperform privates with regard to tenure clarity. At Cornell, a manual has been published to guide faculty through the tenure process at a more “ground level,” according to Martin. She also mentioned that, compared with other Ivy League universities, Cornell faculty members have has a greater, more “viable opportunity” to achieve tenure.
To improve the quality of the University itself, departments are investing in new infrastructure and facilities for new professors, particularly in the sciences, according to Fuchs. These include a life sciences building, to be named Weill Hall, a physical sciences building and various other renovations of existing buildings.
There is evidence of efforts to advance Cornell and recruit the best faculty in the social sciences as well. According to Harry Katz, dean of Industrial and Labor Relations, the college is hiring more faculty to keep class sizes low, in addition to hiring faculty in advance of future retirements.
According to Martin, the beauty of the campus itself and friendliness of the social environment are inherent attributes that attract potential professors to Cornell.
Along with improving faculty hiring, Cornell is also seeking to recruit better students, who will, in turn, attract the best faculty, Martin and Fuchs both emphasized.
In order to achieve this end, Cornell is continually trying to provide more financial aid for students, according to Fuchs.
“Ensuring that Cornell’s faculty remains outstanding and even gains in quality is my highest priority. The only thing that ranks up there is that we continue to get the same high quality of students … and to provide the best education for them,” Martin said.
According to Ainslie, “overall salaries, wages, and benefits account for 60% of the overall operating budget.”
“That’s the core, that’s really the core: High quality faculty and high quality students,” Martin stressed. “Everything else follows from that and is here in support of that, and can never take over that.”