Swell of new faculty shows hiring edge

The University’s relatively stable financial footing coming out of the recession allowed it to invest in more professor hires this year as its national counterparts were forced to slow down faculty expansion, top leaders said.

While many public and some private colleges face budget shortfalls and have been forced to rein in hiring, GW added 96 new professors this fall, up from 76 at this time last year. Its total number of full-time faculty has increased 10 percent over the last five years.

As a private university, GW has been shielded from budget cuts plaguing its public counterparts like University of California-Berkeley and at University of Florida. Even private Ivy League schools like Cornell and Brown universities instituted temporary hiring freezes right after the recession, according to U.S. News & World Report.

The hiring spree has given GW an edge in bringing top-notch candidates to the school, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Dianne Martin said. “We have been able to continue to hire when other peer universities have had hiring freezes,” Martin said.

GW’s executive vice president and treasurer Lou Katz said as public schools struggled to stay afloat during the recession without government funds, the University made the decision to “invest in ourselves,” recognizing what he called a stellar hiring market.

The University’s endowment fell 17 percent in 2008, beating out the average drop of 23 percent among universities that year. Northwestern University, a competitor, cut back on hiring after its endowment plummeted in 2009, according to The Daily Northwestern.

Because the recruitment of professors takes months or years, Katz said now is the time for GW to see fruit from its outlay, getting its “first picks” all around for new professors.

Creating faculty openings and offering competitive starting salaries is the smartest move a financially stable university could make in bad economic times, said Saranna Thornton, a labor economist at Hampden-Sydney College and author of the American Association of University Professors’ annual report.

“Think about the top Ph.D. coming out of graduate school right now, out of Harvard, Stanford and University of Chicago. It used to be they would go to other top schools for their first professor jobs. Now there’s not as many of those jobs open, so schools that appear lower, like GW have an opportunity to hire faculty one tier higher than they were able to,” Thornton said.

She said GW will reap its hiring benefit years down the road, as the top young professors it hires now become rooted in D.C. with their families. “If George Washington uses this as an opportunity to hire faculty they wouldn’t otherwise have a shot at, when the economy recovers in two to three years, they’ll stay at GW and not want to move,” she said. “It’s a strategically smart time for a school that has the money to increase full-time faculty.”

The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences has led the way in bulking up its full-time professorial staff, adding 22 new positions over the last five years. In 2001, the Board of Trustees poured $5.3 million over five years into Columbian College to hire new research-oriented faculty.

Anthony Yezer, who directs the University’s Center for Economic Research and helps hire faculty in the economics department, said GW tries to use the handicap it has over its public counterparts to its advantage. With budget shortfalls skyrocketing into the billions in states like Florida, California and Wisconsin, the plight of public universities is likely to continue, he said.

“We can scare people with the likely future for public universities that even if you’re getting a slightly better deal [from them] now, what is it going to be like later? They come up for tenure in five to six years, and they have to worry what the situation is going to be in California and Illinois and Michigan then,” Yezer said. “We try to terrify them with the future. This is economics. This is not a lie or deception.”

The School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Public Health and Health Sciences have also executed aggressive hiring plans in recent years as both schools gear up to move into roomier, more expensive buildings. Each school at GW usually covers salaries and benefits for professors out of its budget, with approval for new tenured professors by the provost’s office and the Board of Trustees.

“As a department, the market for academic jobs helps us. As a university that is searching, we should be able to hire top-tier candidates across the board,” said political science department chair Paul Wahlbeck, who added five new faculty this year to his department. “This is a great time to have openings.”

Professors at universities across the country are delaying retirements to ride out a poor economy, tightening up colleges’ budgets to add younger professors with new research ambition. Many hires replace faculty who retire or leave the University, but GW is also adding new positions.

While the University has offered buyouts over the last three years, with 23 professors taking sweetened retirement deals in the Columbian College and the engineering school, physics department chair Allena Opper said new faculty are not only replacing retirees.

“So often a department is growing in terms of the students they’re teaching or because it’s an area the department or University wants to build,” she said.

And while public universities are hurting the worst, GW has also been able to offer higher salaries to assistant professors than some its privately funded counterparts like Vanderbilt and Tufts. The average salary at GW for assistant professors, the title most young faculty assume, has grown 12.1 percent since 2008, a faster pace than eight of its 14 market basket schools, which are all private.

The plan has helped out assistant professor of computer science Michael Clarkson, who was hired last summer after graduating from Cornell University as one of five new professors hired by the computer science department last year.

Academic jobs were evaporating when he tested the job market two years ago, he said, with many schools cancelling job openings one by one before GW offered him a position.

“When I went on the job market for the first time, there really weren’t academic jobs available,” Clarkson said. “The chance to be a part of something new that is in its initial phases and growing, and growing very strongly, was exciting to me. That’s one of the reasons I came to GW.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report

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