Teaching Toolbox
The Lure of Private Industry

By Linda Creighton

Illustration by Jane MarinskyThe strong economy is making it harder for universities to recruit--and retain--engineering professors.

With high-technology firms continuing to woo valued professors with big money, the nation's top engineering schools have come courting with both traditional academic assets and new business muscle. Playing up their natural advantage as a place where ideas and information are generated and freely exchanged, universities across the country are recruiting and retaining faculty members by opening avenues of entrepreneurship on their own turf, while also reminding professors of the unique satisfactions of a teaching environment.

Educators say the up side to the unprecedented competition with industry for top-notch teaching talent is the realization that engineering schools are at the forefront of a worldwide economic boom, their programs and graduates the hottest commodities going. Russ Corotis, dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in a state where 12,000 high-tech jobs are going begging, points out, "Our role is getting more and more recognized. There's a real opportunity for us here."

But the pool from which to draw teachers for this surge of interested students is getting smaller and smaller, deans and recruiting administrators agree. David Ashley, dean of Ohio State University, says, "In the past, we'd hire from other universities and they'd hire from us, a balance. But now we're losing people from the system." Though the percentage of instructors hired away by high-tech industry is usually small, the overall impact is huge. "We seem to keep even, when what we need is to grow to meet the demands," says Ashley. Not only that--the graying of the engineering faculty is leading to more retirements than usual and creating more openings.

Computer science departments, which are part of the engineering school at many universities, are the most vulnerable to raids from industry, with an alarming trend that picks off even future professors. "The computer-related fields are so desperate for good people that we are in the odd situation of finding some of our graduate students--and even undergraduate students--getting offers to leave for extremely high-paying jobs before they complete their degrees," says Ilene Busch-Vishniac, who has just completed her second year as dean at Johns Hopkins. In response, universities are getting creative, and becoming increasingly powerful business players. Finding strong support in communities eager for a place in the new economy, schools' financial and intellectual assets are being strengthened as never before.

The biggest challenge is recruitment. Almost universally, schools are upgrading their starting packages and salaries, particularly in the most popular departments. The beginning salary for a new Ph.D. in computer science at Ohio State, for example, has increased faster than in any other field, in the range of $75,000 for a nine-month work period. In most cases, starting university salaries in engineering are now on a par with those offered by private business. Negotiations very often include additional enticements. "We have become far more entrepreneurial in our approach--being much more flexible about consulting and outside employment, for instance," says Hopkins' Busch-Vishniac. At Stanford, professors have the financial benefit of one day per week of outside consulting income.

At Georgia Tech, senior faculty members are eligible for endowed chairs, usually in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million. "Faculty know that income is available to them every year to conduct any research they want," says Dean Jean-lou Chameau.

The Right Neighborhood

Physical location is increasingly important in attracting good faculty members. Until now schools like Stanford, neighbors of high-tech and venture capital, had an enormous advantage. "Lots of companies that might have lured faculty are here," says James Plummer, Stanford's engineering dean for the past year. Most professors enjoy close ties to the high-tech industry. But while proximity to Silicon Valley is still a magnet, the cost of living there is now so high that it is becoming a negative factor. At Ohio State, says Dean David Ashley, "With our [lower] cost of living we offer a much higher quality of life from day one." Already offering assistance with housing, down payments and mortgages, Stanford is working on additional ways to help faculty members.

Provost Deborah Freund is aggressively recruiting women to fill faculty positions at Syracuse University. "Women like to see other women on the faculty," she says, especially since only 28 percent of the students at engineering schools are female, compared with the 50 percent share that women have of overall college enrollment. A strategy embraced by many deans is the creation of interdisciplinary study and research, offering faculty a broader reach and greater possibilities. "Technology streams have merged, and so will education," observes Paul Peercy, the new dean of Wisconsin's Madison campus. Last year the University of Colorado at Boulder hired away a senior Yale professor by offering a unique joint appointment between the engineering and medical departments.

Catering to Special Interests

Successful recruiting today often comes from doing the homework on specific interests potential faculty members might have. "It's easier to hire into focus areas," says Syracuse's Freund. "You want to make an offer that is tailor made." Perhaps the most intangible and yet valuable asset a school can offer those looking for teaching positions is the prestige that comes with excellent standards. Hiring the best and brightest seems to come easier if a university reputation, like that of Stanford, is well established. Even the best schools, however, are sometimes trumped by industry's ace in the hole: stock options. Instant financial independence is a prospect that no university can hope to match.

Although the number of potential professors who choose business over academia is hard to quantify, the effect of losing even one or two senior faculty members can throw an entire department into disarray. Carnegie Mellon lost its computer operating system expert Rick Rashid to Microsoft in 1991, for example, and between 15 and 20 top people followed.

And it's not only pressure from industry that results in faculty loss. Microsoft estimates that 50 to 200 applications a month come to them from school faculty, and of those who are offered a job, 80 percent accept. Ohio State's Ashley says, "The money is so widespread now, faculty are out looking. The people who have these opportunities are some of the best, and it's important to know what it takes to keep them."

Deans at the top schools agree that the most important step in retaining faculty members is to keep the lines of communication open. "I want to know if anything is being put on the table," says Syracuse's Freund, "and then I knock on their door and say, 'What can we do to keep you here?'" Colorado dean Russ Corotis says he follows three basic steps to make his university environment special: One: In departments where enrollment is going up, be sure the teaching load is not subtly increased. Reassess constantly to lighten the load. Two: Guarantee things business cannot, such as long-term scholarly pursuit of research, but offer things industry is offering, such as start-up possibilities, licensing technology, and a good intellectual property policy. Three: Take care of salaries--especially be aware of mid-career salary compression issues--and be creative with the school endowment.

Perhaps the single most effective way to keep faculty is to let them go, temporarily at least. Without exception, the top schools have generous leave policies, allowing educators to dip into the corporate world and, hopefully, be welcomed back within a few years. "If you part temporarily, you want to leave them a way back," says Ohio State's Ashley. Georgia Tech's dean Chameau remarks, "I've had people go for six months to a year and they've come back. I'd prefer them to be gone even two years if it means they come back."

Academic Advantages

The shifting fortunes and natural limitations of high-tech businesses may be working in the universities' favor. Chameau points out that in some cases individuals at universities have more personal financial potential under intellectual property policies, and that entrepreneurial ideas can often be implemented more easily outside a corporate lab. The narrow, product-oriented research and market-driven goals of industry are less attractive to many professors than a university-based long-term research program.

The university's diversifying role in a new economy is signaled by a willingness to facilitate on-campus business plans, encourage professors in start-up ventures, form collaborative partnerships with industry, and establish research parks, as well as licensing technology deals. Yet it is the central role as an academic institution that may ultimately hold a university's strongest appeal over industry. Chameau describes the competition eloquently. "The kind of people who come to academia are interested in discovery. They are interested in research and teaching young people. It has to be the main reason they are here. That environment is difficult to replace."

And the competition cuts both ways, with outstanding industry players recruited for leading roles at universities. "We've done very well here over the last few years to attract senior people from industry," says Chameau, listing IBM, Bell Laboratories, and Lucent as sources for hires with 20 to 25 years experience in research and development. Wisconsin's Peercy was recruited straight out of his job as president of a semiconductor company in Austin, Texas. His entrepreneurial perspective is valued on campus, giving him an advantage in knowing the problems from both sides. Indeed, the raiding of university faculties may eveentually hurt everyone. Says Colorado's Corotis: "If the brightest minds don't go to a university, in the long run that is terrible for society."

Still, it remains to be seen if the attractions of academia are strong enough to keep the revolving door spinning from academia to industry, and then back again.

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.


more Teaching Toolbox articles -  Teaching , On Campus , Calendar , Marketplace