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 Published Sunday, August 10, 1997

U loses some, wins some in fight to hire and retain stars

Mary Jane Smetanka / Star Tribune

When people talk about stars at the University of Minnesota, they're talking about people such as electrical engineer Stephen Chou, who is at the peak of his profession after building his career at Minnesota.

As of next year, he's gone, moving to Princeton University.

Art historian Karal Ann Marling is a star, too, winning fans inside and outside of academia for her pithy observations on subjects from Elvis to the heroes and monuments of Iwo Jima.

She's staying, but not because of anything the university's done.

Ecologist David Tilman, a renowned researcher on biodiversity, agonized for months over an offer from an Ivy League school. This spring he decided to stay at Minnesota, but he's still torn.

"It's a tough call," he said. "I don't know what I'd do if they called again."

Scholars with the stature and visibility of Chou, Marling and Tilman make the reputation of institutions such as the University of Minnesota. During the past 18 months, many feared that the university would be targeted by faculty raiders from other schools as the Board of Regents' tenure fight with faculty and administration became national news.

In the end, the university's College of Liberal Arts and Institute of Technology retained 15 of 20 prominent academics who had offers from other schools. Liberal Arts hung onto all the professors it tried to keep; IT kept five out of 10 people.

"All of them were stars," said H. Ted Davis, dean of IT. "These were knock-down, drag-out fights."

Faculty raiding is a part of life at a research university. It's a compliment when other institutions think highly enough of professors to try to hire them away.

But no university -- or state -- wants to lose its best and brightest. That's why Gov. Arne Carlson talked with new university President Mark Yudof about setting up a fund to recruit senior, blue-chip professors.

Yudof's answer: The best way for public schools like Minnesota to get stars is to grow them. "When it comes to buying people at the top, it's hard to outbid Stanford and Harvard and Chicago," he said.

Or Princeton, which is giving Chou $1 million to set up his lab.

"We tried hard," Davis said. "We simply couldn't keep him."

Hiring and keeping quality professors in such fields as psychology, physics and engineering -- where computing power, new laboratories and research assistants are a condition of hiring -- is high-stakes. It's not unusual for costs to set up new faculty to be $100,000 to $500,000.

Making Minnesota's situation more difficult is the fact that, although most faculty members will get substantial raises this year, salaries for full professors lag behind those of other major research universities. That, topped by the tenure issue, made faculty members increasingly open to job overtures in the past year, officials say.

"What happened is that faculty who would have automatically said 'no' decided to take a look," said Phil Shively, who, as provost of arts, sciences and engineering, last year handled the university's most pressing retention cases.

The university does not try to keep everyone who gets a job offer. But if keeping someone is a priority, even the university president works to retain them.

"If we want to compete, we have to fight like hell," said Dean Steven Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

The 10 professors retained by the college after they had offers elsewhere received raises totaling $221,000, plus $333,000 in one-time costs for upgraded laboratories or other increased support.

In IT, retaining the five faculty members meant a one-time cost of $600,000 for such items as improved laboratories. The five received raises ranging from 17 percent to 57 percent, with one getting $40,000 more a year. The university matched but did not exceed offers made by competing institutions, Davis said.

One-time costs were paid for through general overhead money from federal grants; salary increases were paid for by scrimping within colleges. No one was denied a raise because of the retention cases, the deans said.

Rewarding your own

Still, there is resentment of the bargaining that goes on.

"Church mice like me, we don't get the kind of dough we ought to have," said Marling, the art historian. "If it were a matter of economics, I would be gone."

In an attempt to head off raids, 12 professors who the College of Liberal Arts thought might attract outside offers got unrequested raises last summer, and the college improved research funding. Also last year, the university began awarding Distinguished McKnight University Professorships. So far 15 professors have received $100,000 to use over five years for research, scholarly or artistic activities.

History Prof. Sara Evans received the award this year. She called it "a miracle."

"When you reach a certain level of national visibility in your profession and have an intellectual community that is not only local but national . . . you're aware of possibilities elsewhere. At the awards ceremony last spring, people talked about what it meant to receive the award. . . . Of course, it increases loyalty. It's an amazing, amazing gift from the institution."

Princeton mystique

Chou, 41, is a home-grown star. Hired by Minnesota as a promising assistant professor in 1989, he has gained international recognition for, among other things, inventing magnetic memory that has 100 times the memory of older systems.

"He is a tremendous loss," Davis said. "We have as good a situation here for research activity as they do. But . . . Princeton has a certain mystique."

When Princeton, with its deep pockets, named Chou the Joseph C. Elgin Professor of Engineering, the appointment carried money with it -- and the $1 million lab.

Chou said tenure had nothing to do with his move. IT did its best to keep him, he said, but Princeton has given him an irresistible challenge. "I felt moved," Chou said. "It's very exciting."

He expects to be at Princeton for the rest of his career.

A popular scholar

While some dismiss Marling's work as fluff, she probably is the most-quoted Minnesota professor since biomedical ethicist Arthur Caplan left for the University of Pennsylvania several years ago. Every time she's on TV or is quoted in newspapers, "University of Minnesota" is attached to her name.

Marling came to the university in 1977 as an associate professor and was quickly promoted. Minnesotans know her mostly for her thoughts on the State Fair, but she has written about everything from New Deal art programs to George Washington.

"I work in a kind of unconventional field, sort of a cross between art and American studies and popular culture," she said. "I am grateful to the university for sticking by me in thick and thin."

Marling has been a visiting professor at Harvard. Her books receive rave reviews. Recently she was a consultant for a History Channel series on the 1950s and was on the PBS series "American Visions." Yet she feels slighted by the university, saying the professors who are rewarded often are not those who emphasize teaching and writing.

"There are people here who do their job extremely well and are not recognized by the university," she said. "If the university is not its productive faculty, what is it?"

Marling has rejected job offers, mostly from publishers and industry. She is not looking because she is "crazy about Minnesota." "I feel cherished by the people of Minnesota," she said. "I could probably be the queen of the State Fair if I wanted. Ordinary folks in Minnesota pay more attention to me than the U of M does."

Questioning the future

For Tilman, deciding whether to stay at Minnesota was so difficult that, months after his decision, he hesitates to discuss "a deeply personal thing."

"I have had many offers in the past that were easy to turn down. This was a very hard call."

The 48-year-old is another home-grown star, coming to the university 21 years ago from graduate school. Last year, he was among the first to receive the McKnight award. His experiments on prairie biodiversity and how humans affect ecosystems have been hailed by scientists as brilliant and ground-breaking.

When the job offer came last September, he had reason to stay: His research plots were here, he had children in high school, and he liked living in Minnesota. Yet he was uneasy. Some of it may have been mid-career restlessness, but a big part of his unease was a feeling that Minnesotans, from the governor to the media, did not value the university.

"I saw ever-declining support. . . . I could accept that when the whole nation was in recession. But when we had a billion-dollar surplus and they were still talking about the 'U' cutting back, it was clear something fundamental had happened," he said.

As Tilman considered his choices, he had long conversations with then-President Nils Hasselmo.

In March, Tilman decided to stay, even though the other job would have paid more. "If I feel I can stay in Minnesota and work at a university that is appreciated and has a chance to progress, I did not feel it was worth all the trauma of a move."

Young and world-class

The university hasn't been shy about trying to lure young scholars from other institutions.

This fall, University of California at Irvine associate Prof. Michael O'Connor, 43, will take the Ordway Chair in Developmental Biology. The university searched for more than five years before appointing O'Connor, who'll get about $500,000 to set up his lab.

And O'Connor, who studies how genes control development, was named an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The honor carries not only research money but tremendous respect within the scientific community, said Ross Johnson, chairman of the Genetics and Cell Biology Department. "This is a very, very big deal." he said. "The people associated with it are scientists who are making breakthrough contributions."

Another recent hire is Bernard Levinson, an associate professor at Indiana University and biblical law specialist who will hold the Berman Chair in Classical and Near Eastern Studies. Rosenstone, the liberal arts dean, calls Levinson "spectacular."

At 45, Levinson is young to hold an endowed chair. But when the university contacted scholars during an international search, his name kept popping up. "People kept saying this is someone who will be a leader in his field," said Bill Milandra, chairman of the Department of Classical and Near-Eastern Studies.

Levinson hesitated to apply because the post seemed aimed at a more senior scholar. "They could have taken the easy way out and hired someone who is 66 and ready to retire. But they're taking a really long-range view and making a commitment."

Indiana fought to keep him. While it was difficult to leave, he said, the lure of Minnesota's interdisciplinary approach to biblical and Jewish studies and the excitement he felt after talking with Milandra and Rosenstone made it impossible to turn down.

First, though, he made sure the tenure issue was dead: "If there had been any doubt about the tenure system not being retained, I would not have come."

© Copyright 1997 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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