KU must keep grip on faculty despite state budget squeeze

Kansas University has more than possible layoffs to worry about. It needs to keep an eye on its current employees as well.

University officials worry that unpredictable annual budgets may make it harder to keep their best professors from being snatched up by other universities.

“When you’re subject to attempts of staff poaching, it’s a sign your faculty are doing something right,” Provost Richard Lariviere said.

But with a possible 7 percent budget crunch looming, Lariviere said the university’s ability to retain its top faculty is kneecapped.

“It sounds hokey, but we have a sacred trust,” he said. “You can have the brightest students in the country, but if you have a mediocre faculty you’re not going to get anything out of them.”

The best and brightest

Universities often dangle carrots such as new labs, high-quality colleagues and salary boosts to keep their elite from leaving and to entice others.

In 2005 Jeff Aube, KU medicinal chemistry chairman, was aggressively recruited by another university. KU pooled its resources and offered Aube a counter package including boosts in salary and research.

“We convinced him to stay here,” Lariviere said. “Damn near broke the bank.”

For Aube’s part, it wasn’t just the money, but a sense of camaraderie that kept him in Kansas.

“The department I work in and my colleagues are fantastic,” he said. “Those are definitely important.”

Just this year, KU successfully wooed Blake Peterson, a professor of medical chemistry from Pennsylvania State University, with a $150,000 paycheck and the promise of a $5 million lab, funded through a Kansas Bioscience Authority grant.

But packages like these are rare.

Bleeding out

KU historically lags behind the national average for professor salaries. And while the university can occasionally offer salary boosts to entice exceptional professors into staying, there are times it just can’t stack up.

During the 2007-08 academic year, KU squeaked ahead of the national average of public university professor salaries. KU averaged $110,000 per professor while the national average came in at $109,000.

Joseph Steinmetz, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said his school constantly fights to maintain its staff. Of the approximately 600 faculty members, he said around 25 to 30 are approached each year with outside offers.

During the last couple of years, he said, KU has managed to retain about 75 percent of these faculty.

Even a decade ago, low pay was sending professors away.

Former KU researcher Richard Plumb told the Journal-World in a 1998 interview that moving to the engineering department at the State University of New York in Binghamton provided him an opportunity that KU couldn’t have matched.

Lariviere also recalled losing a well-regarded medical chemistry professor in 2006 to Minnesota.

“It hurts like hell when that happens,” Lariviere said.

Standing on shaky ground

Since learning of the potential budget crisis facing higher education in Kansas, KU officials have maintained they won’t make across-the-board cuts. Rather, they said they would eliminate some entire areas. So any sense of equity goes out the window, Lariviere said. One professor might get the ax while another receives a raise.

So KU will have to dig to find other ways of keeping its top teachers from leaving.

Lariviere said The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent “Great Colleges to Work For” survey proved to be a great tool for the university. KU scored in the top five in 12 of 27 categories. And it’s that sense of job satisfaction that helps convince people to stay, he said.

Aube, who’s heading into his 23rd year at KU, said the foundation of research and teaching he built during his tenure at KU helped keep him here.

“I certainly made a lot of good friends here and I have a lot of good productivity,” he said. “Those are definitely important.”