University heightens work to retain top professors

The University has steadily built up its core of full-time professors over the last four years, but administrators now have a new challenge: keeping them.

Provost Steven Lerman said the University must fortify against professor “poaching” by more elite schools by being more proactive and working with deans and department heads to keep star professors at GW.

“We have to make sure we do not become the farm team as we attract these great scholars, so we don’t want to become the place you come to leave,” Lerman said. “We have to make this a supportive, challenging environment in which they find the resources to pursue their own interests.”

The University added 96 professors this year, continuing its 10 percent growth in full-time faculty positions, even at a time when other universities held back on hiring after the 2008 financial crisis.

University spokeswoman Jill Sankey declined to provide the number of total faculty hired away by other universities.

Economics professor Donald Parsons, who said he has seen three “highly productive young scholars” hired away in the last seven or eight years, blames low-paying promotion packages.

“We are, in some, respects missing a generation,” Parsons said. “If we underpay these young faculty members and they feel compelled to explore outside offers, they often end up taking those offers.”

Among the 14 universities GW considers its peer schools, like Northwestern and Boston universities, the University falls roughly in the middle of the pack for average salaries of associate professors.

New hires – which administrators and department heads herald as some of the best GW has added in areas like engineering, economics and political science – could soon become the “envy” of higher-ranked schools, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said.

Maltzman added that while schools and departments mostly make tenure and promotion decisions, the provost’s office has made retaining top faculty a priority this year.

“By working with the deans to ensure that faculty raises are allocated based upon merit and when necessary putting together retention packages, the provost helps to retain star faculty,” he said.

New hires and tenured professors mostly praised the University’s work adding research dollars and focusing on retention issues.

Associate professor of political science John Sides, who earned tenure two years ago, said three professors have left the department for other schools like Columbia and Georgetown universities in the last few years. He added that some opt for other universities to be closer to family or because they earn administrative positions.

Professors and Lerman listed a range of factors that help promote faculty retention, from obvious indicators, like salaries, research funding and lab space, to less measurable qualities, like encouraging a collegial atmosphere.

The University has tried to support new professors with start-up packages to help them begin their research. The amount of money GW allocates for research ballooned between fiscal years 2008 and 2010, increasing threefold to $34.4 million.

Administrators are also counting on the high-tech laboratories in the eight-story Science and Engineering Hall, which will open its doors in 2015, to help attract and keep top professors.

David Dolling, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said only two faculty members had left the school in the last five years – a testament, he said, to its strong faculty mentorship program that he wants to strengthen this year. The school hired 35 new faculty during that period.

Some recent steps that improve professors’ happiness in their jobs have also helped retention, professors said. The University tripled the amount of paid leave for new parents in 2008, a factor that professor of counseling Sylvia Marotta and professor of decision sciences and psychology Philip Wirtz called important.

Michael Barnett, a University professor of political science and international affairs, warned that an improving economy means that universities looking to hire will get aggressive. Barnett himself, a top international affairs scholar, was hired away by GW from University of Wisconsin-Madison two years ago.

“What’s happening now is that [universities] were starved for a while and now are getting money to rehire. So universities are poaching and moving more aggressively,” Barnett said. “It’s always a problem, and in some places, I suspect it’ll get more intense.”

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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