The wave of baby boomer retirements has universities around the country — including the University of Virginia — locked in an arms race for new faculty members.

Recruiting faculty members is at the center of UVa’s long-range plan, which calls for more than 457 hires over the next seven years to replace retiring faculty. On top of this, the university expects to hire more than 150 faculty for new positions to accommodate enrollment growth.

“We see faculty recruiting as the top of the list,” UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan said, referring to the university’s plans. High-quality faculty are at the center of both of the university’s core missions — education and research — so attracting the best possible personnel is paramount for administrators.

But UVa isn’t alone in the search. The university, one of the top institutions in the country, is locked in a race to hire and retain the most promising faculty members. While UVa is in a better position than most, it has to compete with universities with greater endowments and more up-to-date technology and that are situated in larger cities.

At most institutions, “there is a lot of pressure” to bring in candidates, said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

This comes at a time when universities rely less and less on full-time faculty. According to the American Association of University Professors, full-time tenure track faculty account for just 19 percent of the labor force in academia; in the 1970s, it was about 75 percent.

Although newcomers find it difficult to break into academia, competition for top jobs is still intense, Ehrenberg said.

“In general, the labor market for professors is not great now, but the competition at the top universities is just extraordinary,” Ehrenberg said. “Faculty salaries are being bid up for these people, [and] teaching loads are being bid down.”

In many places, administrators are effectively spreading the message to their donors. Last year, for example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison received a $100 million gift from an alumni couple for faculty hiring and retention, the lead gift in a comprehensive fundraising campaign for this purpose.

Many of UVa’s long-term initiatives have faculty hiring in mind, including the creation of new interdepartmental research institutes and healthy “startup packages,” or seed money, to kick-start research projects.

Sullivan said the creation of the Data Science Institute, for example, was a key incentive for the university’s new chairwoman of the Department of Statistics, Karen Kafadar.

A key part of the plan is bringing UVa into the top 20 among research institutions in average salary. UVa’s Board of Visitors adopted this goal in 2013, when it was ranked 34th among the schools in the American Association of Universities.

UVa has gained ground overall since then, but suffered a setback this year, falling to 28th from the No. 27 spot last year.

“We had to project what other schools would do and we undershot,” Sullivan said, noting that the General Assembly also put a cap on salary raises.

A university-wide average doesn’t reflect the differences between various departments — average pay differs by field and department — which has led some Board of Visitors members to question the wisdom of chasing the “top 20” goal at all.

Sullivan acknowledged the ratings aren’t the be-all, end-all of recruitment, but they help capture some initial attention.

“If you’re a faculty member and you feel you’re underpaid, that greatly motivates you to go out and look at other offers,” she said.

John Barnshaw, senior higher education researcher at the American Association of University Professors, said UVa’s plan to boost its average salary ratings is a sound one. A favorable ranking, along with nice startup benefits, would go a long way in helping UVa compete with some of the larger, bigger-name institutions.

“Anything they can do to level the playing field [would be] to their advantage,” Barnshaw said.

Ehrenberg said institutions with smaller budgets should narrow their priorities. UVa’s traditional strength is in humanities, although officials there have been trying to strengthen the school’s position in genomics, information science and nanotechnology.

“When you don’t have the resources, you may have to make decisions on specializing,” Ehrenberg said. 

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Derek Quizon is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7265, dquizon@dailyprogress.com or @DPHigherEd on Twitter.

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