Verbum Ultimum: Talent Follows Money

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 10/30/15 10:11am

Last week, dean of graduate studies Jon Kull announced a plan for an independent School of Graduate and Advanced Studies. According to Kull, the school would have more autonomy over budgeting decisions than it presently does. Kull also said that an independent school would improve faculty recruitment and retention. Of all arguments in support of this plan, this one holds the most promise. The College is, of course, nothing without its faculty.

Undergraduate teaching quality is where the College shines, and any policy or institutional change should further enhance that strength. An independent graduate school might help faculty recruitment, but it is not enough. We hope this change will be made in concert with other, future initiatives that will address concerns about faculty. Dartmouth’s problems with faculty recruiting and retention are well-documented, and solving them must be a top priority for administrators.

Faculty recruitment is an expensive investment — and the return is poor if we cannot attract top-notch scholars who are willing to stay in Hanover. A suboptimal success rate in hiring ultimately causes waste. Beyond these fiscal concerns, it is clear that professors who spend many years at the College enrich our community. They know the school well, and they are better equipped than students and even some administrators to identify the College’s weaknesses and to effect long-term improvements in specific departments. Long-term professors are also better equipped to advise students throughout their time at the College.

Several problems persist in the College’s data regarding faculty. A 2014 “Moving Dartmouth Forward” discussion covered the low minority faculty retention rate. According to the College Fact Book, 23 percent of associate professors identified as being part of a minority group in 2014. For full professors, however, the percentage dropped to just under 9 percent. In 2009, these numbers were 21 percent and 7 percent, respectively. The College also has the largest pay gap in the Ivy League between male and female professors, with female faculty making on average 82.8 percent of their male colleagues’ earnings in 2014.

Since the College does not collect exit interview data, the proposition that the current lack of an independent graduate school causes faculty to leave remains a hypothesis, among others. A common explanation for poor faculty retention, which in practice often functions as an excuse for the status quo, is Hanover’s geographic isolation and consequent lack of vibrant social outlets or networks for professors. While these are credible theories, we cannot be sure of the magnitude of their effect without data on what might encourage faculty to stay.

The aforementioned factors, however, are fixed, with a roughly constant effect over time. Faculty pay — a statistic subject to fluctuation — has exhibited a worrying trend for the past two decades. In the early aughts, then-College President James Wright acknowledged the College’s problems with compensation and sought to “bring Dartmouth salaries in line with peer institutions.” After seeing modest progress on this front, faculty compensation increases stalled during the tenures of former College President Jim Kim and former interim College President Carol Folt, even though the cumulative undergraduate tuition increase totalled 16 percent under their watch. Recent data indicate that College President Phil Hanlon has taken steps to return pay to an upward trend, but faculty compensation likely still warrants the same sort of attention and urgency that Wright gave it.

The College cannot expect to attract top talent if we are not willing to pay for it — no changes to graduate studies can substitute for that. According to data from the American Association of University Professors, in the 2008-2009 academic year, the average salary for associate professors was $104,200, or $115,600 when adjusted for inflation. In the 2014-2015 year, this figure was $113,200. At Princeton University, a peer with a similar undergraduate focus, the averages for 2008-09 and 2014-15 were $114,300 (or $126,800 adjusted for inflation) and $133,000, respectively. The associate professor position puts faculty on the tenured track, which means that a competitive associate professor salary is critical for retention. The pay gap between the College and its wealthier peers should at the very least be holding steady — not worsening.

Administrators should ensure that the College’s resources, including those directed to an independent graduate school, are effectively serving faculty recruitment goals. The College’s salary and wage expenses for undergraduate academic and student programs have grown by 20 percent since fiscal year 2009, after adjusting for inflation. Ideally, these cost increases have gone toward moving Dartmouth’s salaries closer to those of our peers, though judging from the numbers it is unclear that that is the case. As for the graduate school, Kull stated that he thought its share of the budget should increase “a bit” — our hope is that no budgetary shift will come at the expense of undergraduate priorities, particularly faculty pay.

At this stage, it is hard to predict how much value an independent graduate school will add— and at what cost. Though the College is unlikely to ever be a leader in graduate programs, it should still provide graduate students and staff the resources they need to excel. We are eager to see if the new graduate school can not only strengthen the College’s reputation as a research university, but also inspire a long-term commitment to attracting and keeping the country’s brightest minds — ensuring that Dartmouth remains among the country’s premier universities for undergraduate teaching.