President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Recruiting and Retaining Faculty
April 10, 2002
As a faculty member in molecular biology, I had some idea of the keen competition that takes place among universities for the very best teachers and scholars—a competition not only with each other, but with industry, government and other institutions in the non-profit sector. But it wasn’t until I became president that I fully appreciated the amount of time and effort a university expends trying to recruit and retain its faculty.
Princeton has been in the spotlight recently because of our efforts to strengthen further our distinguished Program in African-American Studies. We made a very important appointment last fall when Valerie Smith, an African-American professor of English and African-American Studies, moved to Princeton from UCLA, and another earlier this spring when Anthony Appiah, a distinguished African-American philosopher at Harvard, agreed to join our faculty, where he will teach in our Department of Philosophy, our Center for Human Values and our Program in African American Studies.
While this is a visible area where we have been actively strengthening our program, it is only one of many. Faculty represent the heart of any great university, so faculty recruitment is one of the most important things we do. And we do it constantly because universities are dynamic institutions, continually needing to re-examine established fields, explore emerging ones, apply new technologies, introduce new and diverse perspectives, and respond to the ever-changing interests of their students and the society they serve. No university with aspirations to excellence in teaching or research can afford to stand still.
At Princeton, we decided several years ago that if some of the most important and exciting scientific discoveries of the early 21st century were going to be in the field of genomics, we had to build on our existing strengths by attracting new faculty members like David Tank, a professor of both molecular biology and physics, who joined us recently from Lucent Technologies and William Bialek, a professor in physics who comes from the NEC Research Institute. Similarly, as scientists learn more about the workings of the human brain—and thus about why people think and act as they do—and as this becomes an area of intense student interest, we needed to attract new faculty members like James Haxby, who came to us recently from the National Institutes of Health to join our Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior.
As we seek excellent faculty from private industry and government as well as other universities, so do others seek to attract our faculty. In many ways, of course, this is a compliment—no university would want a faculty in which no one else was interested—but it does mean that we are also constantly engaged in an effort to persuade faculty to fend off outside offers.
In this never-ending process of recruitment and retention, what are the principal issues? Interestingly, and contrary to some perceptions, the principal issue frequently is not salary. That does not mean that there is not a competitive market for excellent faculty members; there surely is. But what is much more likely is that faculty members will base their decisions on whether they will have colleagues who will enable them to do their best work; on the quality and diversity of the students—graduate and undergraduate—they will teach; on whether they will have the space and other resources they need; and on their sense of whether the institution is truly committed to their work and prepared to support it. Not surprisingly, faculty members also may make professional decisions for personal reasons—where they want to live, where they want to raise a family, whether work can be found for a spouse or partner, proximity to an aging parent, and so on.
The provision of specialized resources frequently is an important consideration, and not just in the sciences and engineering where customized laboratory space and equipment often are essential. One recent faculty appointment depended on our obtaining the particular manuscript on which that faculty member works. In another case we could only meet the scholarly needs of a new faculty member by significantly expanding our library’s holdings in the area of Chinese film.
In the end, though, the decision frequently turns on a mix of tangible and intangible factors. When Anthony Appiah announced his decision to come to Princeton, he said it was because he believed that, “of all the universities in the world, Princeton is the one where I have the best chance of doing the work, as a scholar and teacher, that I want to do.” He noted that Princeton would provide him with “quite extraordinary colleagues with whom to pursue the questions that engage me.”
I suspect all university presidents yearn for days when no one is in her office asking for help in recruiting one faculty member or retaining another. But I also suspect that most of us know that our institutions are in serious trouble if that day ever arrives.