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Choosing to Stay

The Challenge of Retaining Talented Faculty

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When UW Professor Zev Handel received a job offer from an ivy league university, he considered the facts. The salary would be substantially higher than his current salary, with a lower cost of living. The teaching load would be lighter. There would be annual funding for travel and research and a library acquisition budget. 

Zev Handel.

Zev Handel.  Media credit: Nancy Joesph

Yet Handel chose to remain at the University of Washington.

“In almost every objective way, the ivy league job was better,” admits Handel, assistant professor of Asian languages and literature. “But then there are the intangibles, like your relationships with colleagues, the reputation and tradition of the department, the location, and what’s best for your family. It’s not an easy decision.”

Each year, many faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences face a similar decision. Courted by other schools, often with resources the UW cannot hope to match, they must decide whether to stay or go. Like Handel, most choose to stay. Sometimes the reason is professional, sometimes personal. Often it’s a little of both. But making the decision is rarely easy. 

“It was two months of agony and not knowing what to do, weighing things back and forth,” recalls Handel. “But right after I made the decision, it felt right. Then I could get back to work.”

The Frustration of Lagging Salaries

For many faculty who consider outside offers, the UW’s low salaries are a major factor. Salaries are lagging behind our peer institutions, and the disparity continues to grow each year. 

“About 15 years ago, our salaries were in the same ballpark as our peers,” says Michael Halleran, divisional dean of the arts and humanities. “But when other states began reinvesting in higher education, we didn’t. If we had reasonable salaries, we would lose fewer people. The fact that we compete as successfully as we do is remarkable.”

Contributing to this gap is the lack of raises for UW faculty. While salaries for arriving assistant professors are in line with other schools, those salaries begin slipping in comparison after a few years without increases. The lack of raises also creates disturbing inequities within departments. 

Michael Halleran.

Michael Halleran. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

“We have cases of full professors doing very good work who make the same as an entering assistant professor in the same department,” says Halleran. “It’s a huge problem, and it is corrosive to morale. Many faculty ask themselves, ‘What will the future be if I stay here? Can I get a better salary only if I get a competitive offer?’”

That is the question Gregg Crane asked himself after six years at the UW. He had just received tenure in the Department of English, but his salary had barely increased since his arrival. “I decided to go looking at other universities with the idea that I might get a counteroffer to keep me at the UW,” says Crane. But the UW couldn’t match an offer from a midwestern university with a lower cost of living and guaranteed raises over the next four years. “The bottom line was paying rent and get- ting my child into a good school,” says Crane. “These were important issues for me.”

Crane chose to leave the UW, with regret. “I was really in a deep funk about it,” he recalls. “It felt wrong to me that I couldn’t get a decent cost-of-living increase without going on the market. That’s not productive.”

David Battisti, professor of atmospheric sciences and associate vice provost and director of the Earth Initiative, was not looking when a top university came calling, offering him “enormous money” and other perks to join its faculty. Although he was committed to the UW and his department, he felt he had to consider the offer for much the same reasons as Crane. 

David Battisti

David Battisti. Media credit: Joel Levin

“I’m not particularly interested in money, but I do want to be able to support my family,” says Battisti. “We were living in a two-bedroom house, with our three kids sharing a room and nothing left to put towards their education.”

The UW was not able to match the outside offer, but it was able to increase Battisti’s salary substantially. And it offered him a professorship, naming him the Tamaki Professor of Atmospheric Sciences. The professorship is aimed at bringing science information to the public, something Battisti considers a priority. Battisti decided to remain at the UW.

“If they hadn’t raised my salary, I would have had to leave,” he says. “But in terms of the work I do and the department culture, the UW is where I want to be. Our culture is a big part of why we are one of the best departments in our field.”

A Culture of Collaboration

Ask Battisti to elaborate on the culture at the UW and a single word comes up repeatedly: collaboration.

“This is such an easy place to make collaborations,” he explains. “The ego and competitiveness of individuals is less extreme than in other places. People are just really curious and open to talking across disciplines. The product at the end of the day is better because this sort of collaboration leads one to ask bigger questions.”

Tom Daniel, chair of the Department of Biology, also views the University’s collaborative environment as a huge selling point. “The UW tends to select for individuals who are highly collaborative, keeping the barrier between programs extremely low,” he says. “We are able to attract and retain faculty, in the face of the most draconianly poor salaries, because of this collaborative environment.”

Jerome Silbergeld

Jerome Silbergeld.

Art historian Jerome Silbergeld had a similar realization—unfortunately about another university. During his 25 years at the UW he had been approached by other institutions and declined all offers. But when Princeton came calling, offering a professorship and directorship of a center in East Asian art, he had to think long and hard. 

“Princeton is the premier institution in my field,” explains Silbergeld. “In a sense, it is the founding program. Directly or indirectly, it has turned out 70 percent of all PhDs in East Asian art history. The position they were offering me was the ultimate position.”

The job was too good to pass up, and Silbergeld left for Princeton in 2001. But he has maintained ties with the UW, serving as an affiliate professor in the School of Art and continuing to advise graduate students completing their dissertations. “I started with them and wanted to see it through,” he says. “It’s a way of keeping a toe in at the UW, which is great. I still feel very attached.” He laughs and adds, “It’s a bit like being a bigamist.”

Astrophysicist Christopher Stubbs also received an offer he found impossible to refuse and is now a professor of physics at Harvard University.

Christopher Stubbs (center) with UW students in 1997.

Christopher Stubbs (center) with UW students in 1997. Media credit: Mary Levin

“It was an extremely difficult decision to leave the UW,” says Stubbs. “It was by no means a slam dunk. But for the specific work I do scientifically, Harvard has the sort of theoreticians, and the technical resources on the astronomy side, that can’t be found at the UW—or anywhere else for that matter. It is an incredibly attractive combination that is very special.”

Combine that with Harvard’s financial resources, and the decision was clear. “There are resources at Harvard to do bold new things,” says Stubbs. “That part was hard at the UW. The entrepreneurial spirit of the UW faculty and the administration is superb, but when I started working on major national priority initiatives, there was nowhere to turn at the UW for money at that scale. It does curtail your ability to implement big picture, expensive things. Of course there are people at the UW who manage to overcome that, but it does help if an institution can lubricate that process.”

Considering the Counteroffer

For Stubbs and Silbergeld, no counteroffer by the UW could match the opportunities they were being offered at another institution. But for many faculty, the UW’s counteroffer is an important factor in their decision to stay or go. It’s not just the money that matters; it is the University’s acknowledgement of the faculty member’s worth.

“There is a psychological dimension to the negotiation process, without question,” says Halleran. “Whatever you put on the table in terms of salary, release time, or other incentives, if you just sent that offer in a fax, it would not get the same reaction. People want to be valued. And they should be.”

As a general rule, the College does not match outside offers but meets the offer about halfway. “If a faculty member’s salary is really out of whack, we might need to go more than halfway,” concedes Halleran. “Each case is different.”

Of course the College’s interest in retaining faculty varies as well. Some faculty are more important to the institution than others, and it’s not just their individual research and teaching that count. “We look at their broader impact,” says Halleran. “It’s like what people said about Magic Johnson—he made everyone on the basketball court better. Some faculty have that effect on a department. We try particularly hard to keep them.”

The negotiation process can take many months. First there is the initial invitation from another institution, which may involve visiting, presenting a talk, and other “get to know” activities. Then come the offer, the counteroffer, and a final decision. It is stressful and exhausting, but also an important affirmation of one’s work.

David Sheilds

David Sheilds Media credit: Tom Collicott

“When the process starts, it’s almost like a first kiss,” says David Shields, professor of creative writing in the Department of English. “You wonder, ‘Where is this going to lead?’ because it is obviously a major decision. It is enormously flattering that someone is paying attention to your work and wants you. It’s good occasionally to be reminded of that.”

Like a first kiss, the competitive offer also can be a major distraction. Most faculty admit that their productivity declines while they focus on this major life decision. And yet it is the only way to boost a lagging salary given current University policy.

“I am deeply concerned about the size of the salary gap between the UW and other schools, and the fact that there has been no way besides a counteroffer for some of the most egregious cases to be remedied,” says David Hodge, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Hodge is hoping that support from the state legislature and tuition increases will help close the gap and address some of the College’s most serious salary inequities. In addition, the College will now commit a pool of money each year from the College’s base budget to provide for “at least a few salary adjustments in the most egregious cases,” without faculty having to seek outside offers.

Margaret Levi believes such changes cannot come soon enough. Levi, professor of political science, Jere L. Bacharach Professor of International Studies, and current president of the American Political Science Association, is approached by other universities so often that she has lost count. “Just last week, I was approached with something that would more than double my salary,” she says.

Levi describes UW faculty as “targets of opportunity” for other institutions—
especially private universities—due to the University’s enormous disparity in salaries. By not paying our faculty what they’re worth, we risk frequent raids by other schools, she warns. 

David Shields agrees, and worries about the message our state is sending about higher education. “It is embarrassing that the UW is so poorly funded,” he says. “For some reason, the state accepts the idea of the University being pretty good rather than providing the funding to make it great. How can a serious university possibly justify paying an athletic coach a million dollars a year while not being able to retain a brilliant professor in the humanities for one-tenth that amount?”

But neither Shields nor Levi is giving up on the UW—just yet. “I have a strong commitment to public universities, which is one of the reasons I chose to come to Seattle in the first place,” says Levi. “My commitment is unwavering, but I am beginning to lose heart about what we can do to maintain quality.”

Staying for the Spouse

Margaret Levi.

Margaret Levi. Media credit: Kathy Sauber

Levi may be dedicated to public universities, but why stick with this university, given its poor track record in terms of state support? The UW has Levi’s husband to thank for that.

“My husband can’t move due to his work and other commitments,” Levi explains. “I have commuted for short periods to serve as a visiting professor elsewhere, and I found it very stressful. So faculty positions that would significantly improve my situation in terms of income and resources would also cause my quality of life to deteriorate, and I’m not willing to do that.”

Marriage is also keeping Professors Patricia and Charles Campbell at the UW. Both hold endowed professorships—hers in music, his in chemistry. Both have been approached about plum positions at other institutions. That’s where things get complicated.

First one public university contacted Patricia, offering her a significant salary increase and “amazing resources” to strengthen the school’s program in her fields, world music and music education. That university was also willing to use a named endowment to create a position for Charles, currently director of the UW’s nanotechnology program. 

Then Charles’ alma mater approached him about a position. “We were still in the midst of thinking about the first offer when Charlie’s mentor—his former teacher—was on the phone welcoming him home,” recalls Patricia, shaking her head. That offer included a position for Patricia as well.

Charlie and Patricia Campbell.

Charlie and Patricia Campbell. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

What followed, says Patricia, was a long, agonizing period during which the pair had to decide where they could both be happy and reconcile what they’d be giving up at the UW.

“Everyone gets excited when they get the call, but there is turmoil when you must decide whether to stay or go,” says Patricia. “You start thinking about what you’d be leaving behind.”

After much thought, the Campbells decided to accept the second offer. After all, it was Charlie’s dream job at his alma mater. Word spread, and Patricia’s future colleagues hosted a reception in her honor at a national conference. But when she returned home from the conference, reality hit. She didn’t want to go.

“Charlie was asking, ‘Now you still want to go too, right?’” recalls Patricia. “And I said, ‘I want to go because you want to go.’ He responded, ‘No, I want to know that you want to go too.’” She adds with a sigh, “Charlie called his mentor the next morning and told him we weren’t coming.”

And Finally . . . Relief

After all the angst, after all the sleepless nights and endless conversations, Patricia Campbell says that the decision to stay was a great relief. “It’s always exciting to think about the potential in a new place, but eventually the honeymoon is over,” she says. “My life at the UW just fits. There is harmony here. I had to ask myself, ‘What am I walking away from? What am I 
walking into?’”

That realization is one of the positive outcomes for many faculty who are approached with competitive offers. Three years after accepting the UW’s counter­offer, faculty may negotiate with the University regarding new outside offers, but most do not.

“Most people want to stay,” says Halleran. “Every once in a while, you’ll see someone who is keeping track of the calendar and comes back with another offer in three years, but that is very rare. I can’t think of one example in my divisions—arts and humanities—in the last eight years.”

Zev Handel is glad that he went through the process and comfortable with his decision to stay. “I made a commitment in my own mind to stay here, and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” he says. “Ten, twenty years from now, who knows. But right now, I’m not going anywhere.”