Quality-of-life factors are the most significant determinants for prospective faculty when they’re considering a job offer, according to a new study conducted by the Project on Faculty Appointments at the Graduate School of Education, and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Senior Researcher Cathy Trower admits these results may come as an “absolute shock” to many in academe, but appear to reflect general cultural trends in the United States.

The Faculty Recruitment Study utilized data collected from two surveys of more than 2,000 doctoral students and almost 700 first- and second-year faculty members at a sample of top institutions across the country. Respondents were asked to rank the importance of such factors as salary, location, chances of tenure, department quality, and institutional prestige when weighing different offers. Both groups ranked geographic location as their first priority, followed by the “work balance” between teaching and research. Salary and institutional prestige are ranked toward the bottom of the list. The tenure factor is ranked somewhere in the middle.

The results “were a surprise … for a number of reasons,” Trower explains. “First of all … when institutions [traditionally] have offered non-tenure-track jobs, they typically have offered more money as an incentive, and our findings are telling us that higher salaries may not be required, especially if the institution is in an attractive location.”

Another “shock point,” according to Trower, is the “rather drastic shift in the interest shown in teaching over research.” Among the doctoral students in the study, only 12 percent planned to apply for jobs at research universities. The percentages of those planning to apply for positions at community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and comprehensive state colleges are much higher. Trower believes the numbers connote a subtle, but significant change among academics. “To me, there’s something more going on there…that’s indicative of a conscious decision, like ‘that’s not necessarily the life that I want. I might find the life that I want at one of these other institutions,’ and again, that’s a quality-of-life issue.”

‘Gender Shift’

Trower believes there are several potential explanations for the results, including a significant “gender shift” in academe in recent years. “Women, in particular, are saying the tenure clock collides with the biological clock…that the tenure process allows little room for family life. Some women are also concerned about the competitive nature of the tenure process, something they find unappealing. The academy is requiring collaboration with a shift to student learning and interdisciplinary programs and courses, but the tenure process still rewards only individual efforts.” Another factor at play, according to Trower, may be the strong national economy, which is making people “more mobile, more willing to take a risk…to [take advantage] of all the opportunities out there.”

“If we put [these findings] together with what we’re hearing from other researchers, we see that the new scholars entering academe are looking for something different than [what] those who are doing the hiring may be offering,” Trower explains.

“The big message is that [academic institutions] are probably recruiting in the wrong way. The message for deans and department chairs who are attempting to attract the best and brightest scholars is, whenever possible, be flexible. Work with the person to ascertain their needs; determine what they will find fulfilling, rather than assume that ‘one size fits all.’ If an institution really wants to attract someone, they should be showing them Chamber of Commerce brochures, not faculty handbook provisions.” Trower believes the study may give administrators cause to strongly consider adopting more “family friendly” rules, including “stop the clock” policies that allow tenure-track faculty the opportunity to temporarily drop off the track to have a family, and later re-enter academe, “and not have it work against them.”

Tenure Tension

The Faculty Recruitment Study is currently being distributed to those deans and department chairs who participated in the survey, and Trower is bracing for their response. “In some cases, [the reaction] is going to be absolute shock. To some, it’s going to be disbelief,” she says. “There are still a number of folks who are living in a different mind-set, especially, I think, in the disciplines that don’t necessarily have an outside market… [Tenure] is important. It is valued. I don’t want to imply that women and minorities don’t want it…Who wouldn’t want job security if you could get it? All we’re saying is it’s not the be-all-and-end-all that it used to be…and we are hearing some voices saying the tenure process is a mess. It’s grueling. It’s unfair. It’s mysterious. All that is coming through.”

Whether or not the study spurs reform on college campuses across the country is still speculative, although Trower is convinced certain changes in hiring protocols are inevitable as a new generation of faculty settles into place. “As [younger people] enter academe in greater numbers, and some of the tenured faculty retire, there will gradually be a shift to support [these efforts], but this won’t happen quickly.”

If nothing else, Trower believes her study and an accompanying computer model she developed, which determines the statistical probability of a prospective faculty member accepting competing job offers, may indeed light a fire beneath the academic community, sparking new thinking and inciting fresh ideas about recruiting college faculty in the years to come.