It's All About the Faculty?

Monday, April 25, 2011
UPDATED APRIL 26: Please also review comments on this piece over at Sifting and Winnowing.

There is a critical element of the argument for the New Badger Partnership that has gone unquestioned for far too long: the faculty must get raises or else the university is going off the deep end.

We are told by Chancellor Martin that upon arriving at UW-Madison, two of the strongest concerns voiced to her came from faculty who felt that their low pay was driving the departure of their colleagues, and from students who felt they were losing their valued professors. This theme is echoed in the voices of Students for the NBP, many commentators on discussion boards, and in faculty meetings across campus.

Yes, the faculty salaries are low at Madison, relative to those at peer institutions, however you choose to define "peer." But it isn't clear that this is policy concern that ought to drive an argument for Public Authority.

Instead, I suggest that the question is "What are the most cost-effective ways to attract and retain talented professors who can fulfill UW-Madison's missions?"

Another really important question is: do we have a faculty turnover problem? The data I can find on change over time seems to imply "no" -- the proportion of faculty leaving hasn't changed much over 30 years, and if anything seems to have declined.

Assessing the wisdom of implementing the NBP in order to increase faculty salaries requires: (a) defining institutional missions, (b) defining talent, (c) identifying several recruitment and retention strategies, and (d) comparing those strategies on their costs and their impacts. High-cost low-impact strategies will not fly in this fiscal climate. We need to find those that are proven to work before investing heavily.

You're probably asking yourself, is this professor seriously questioning the need to pay people well in order to get them to work at UW-Madison? Let's be very clear: I'm NOT arguing our faculty do not deserve to be paid more -- on many metrics they clearly do. What I am questioning is whether raising faculty salaries is the most cost-effective way to achieve the goal of retaining talent and whether efforts to raise faculty salaries should be a driving force behind the New Badger Partnership. The second point is especially important since there are serious questions about whether the NBP will effectively improve salaries, or whether instead the promise of more compensation is being used to garner faculty support for the Chancellor's initiative.

Here are some of my questions:

(1) What are the criteria by which we should define talent when thinking about who we want to recruit as professors at UW-Madison? Are the criteria we are currently using serving all constituencies well? For example, what role do our standards for teaching play in our undergraduate retention rate? In the severe black/white gap in that retention rate?

(2) To what degree should commitment to the Wisconsin Idea and/or congruence with the mission of a public land-grant institution be a hiring criteria?

(3) To what degree are professors making decisions about coming to UW-Madison-- and staying at UW-Madison-- based on salary? Let's start with this: what is our current faculty retention rate, by rank? Nationally, it's around 85% for assistant professors and 92-93% for those at higher ranks (at doctoral institutions). The last report I can find at Madison indicates ours is 5 or 6% on average. (That report is old (1999), focuses mainly on gender issues in tenure, and calls for more research.) Research indicates that faculty turnover rates are higher at public institutions relative to private ones, net of compensation-- this may be due to the different practices, policies, and governance structures at private institutions.

(4) What other factors are affecting those decisions-- and how important are they, relative to absolute salary? For example, what role does the quality of life in Madison play? How about salary inequity (among UW-Madison professors)? The shared governance system? Campus climate? The tenure and promotion system? Gender and/or racial bias in that system? The presence or absence of unions? Some research suggests that compensation and teaching load interact, such that the benefits of higher compensation occur largely when teaching load is also reduced-- are we prepared to foot the bill for simultaneously raising salaries and reducing the number of courses taught?

Moreover, research on this topic suggests that compensation is a more important factor in hiring and retaining professors at other UW System institutions, compared to UW-Madison. For example, a study by Chancellor Martin's Cornell colleague economist Ron Ehrenberg found that "Compensation levels, on average, affect retention rates for associate and assistant professors [as compared to full professors]. Most striking, however, is that the magnitude of the relationship gets larger as we move from graduate institutions, to 4-year institutions, to 2-year institutions. Put another way, the responsiveness of retention rates to a given dollar change in compensation appears to be greater for 2-year colleges than it does for institutions with graduate programs; not a surprising result since average compensation levels are lower at the former and thus a given dollar change represents a greater percentage change. In addition, because of the importance to faculty involved in research in graduate level institutions of nonpecuniary conditions of employment, such as the presence of good research facilities, libraries, graduate students and colleagues, current earnings and compensation are likely to be relatively less important factors in their mobility decisions." Admittedly, the low levels of compensation at UW-Madison may make faculty more responsive to an increase, compared to those at your average research institution-- but if a dollar is a dollar, it's not clear that dollars are best spent on salaries at Madison versus elsewhere.

(5) What variation exists in the impact of salary on professors' decision-making? For example, does this vary by gender? Rank? Family background? Is it possible that the feminization of the faculty, and the increased propensity of faculty to bear young children on the tenure track, affect both our recruitment and retention efforts (Ehrenberg's data, now two decades old, suggests this matters less than we think. But this is an important issue because some colleagues continue to downplay the decisions made by their colleagues to leave for family reasons, instead insisting they lost top talent because of inadequate compensation.)

(6) What role does the market play in the decisions we want to make as an institution? Is our goal to match the actions of our peers? Or do we intend to attract niche talent, and utilize specific unique approaches to retaining them?

Consider this: "In 2000-2001, the difference between the average compensation of associate professors at private doctoral and public-independent doctoral institutions was in the range of $13,500...if public doctoral universities were to increase their average associate professor compensation level by $10,000 and substantially close this gap, they would at most increase their associate professors continuation rates by about 0.7 percentage points, which would still leave them with a lower average continuation rate than that of their private counterparts... In other words, for each 100 associate professors that an institution were to employ, it would cost more than an extra $1 million a year in faculty compensation to reduce its associate professor's turnover rate by one faculty member."

Is this a war we public land-grant institutions think we can, and should, be trying to win right now?

We at UW-Madison need to seriously consider and debate these concerns. I have not seen any empirical evidence that such questions have been thoroughly examined across units at Madison--instead, our talented institutional researchers are devoted to documenting faculty compensation (e.g. an input), and tenure and retirement rates (e.g. outcomes). These things are important but they do not illuminate the relationships between inputs and outcomes.

That said, if you have the data and have done the analysis, please share. The faculty--and indeed all of Wisconsin-- need to know.