Groves of academeFaculty retention a major challenge for universities

Published 17 February 2012

New study shows men and women faculty retained at same rate; but median retention rate for all university professors is only eleven years; if a university hires 100 assistant professors tomorrow, in eleven years only fifty of them will still be at the school

Attracting and retaining the world’s brightest students is on the mind of every university official. A new study in the journal Science suggests, however, that 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 women faculty in the areas of science, technology, and engineering are being retained at the same rate. The one exception is in mathematics departments, where women faculty depart their jobs significantly sooner than men.

Looking at the bigger picture of the study — the first large-scale longitudinal study on faculty retention — reveals that faculty members of both genders stay at a university for a median of eleven years.

“This means if you hire 100 assistant professors 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 higher education. 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.”

Findings of the study are published today by the journal Science. 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.

A Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute release reports that Kaminski and Geisler tracked the professional progress of 2,966 individual assistant professors hired since 1990 in the fields of science and engineering at fourteen 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