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UW faces challenges in faculty retention

As various departments face challenges in ensuring quality professors do not leave for better offers at other universities, faculty retention is increasingly on the minds of UW students and staff.

There are multiple reasons faculty retention is difficult, said professor Paul Hopkins, the chair of the Department of Chemistry and a veteran of the UW for more than two decades.

Hopkins, who has been the department’s chair for more than 16 years and has experience with hiring and retention, said that while it is human nature for people to want higher salaries, the UW still faces the growing problem of establishing an efficient salary system that encourages faculty to stay.

While the UW does offer merit-based raises to faculty, the state of Washington has imposed a three-year salary-freeze on state employees. Therefore, retention offers, which the university gives professors who are being sought by other universities, are often the only way for professors to get raises.

Under the current salary system, Hopkins said faculty members often are forced to resort to soliciting offers from competing universities and then convey these to their department chairs to get salary raises.

“The pull is always going to be there, but you want to eliminate the push,” Hopkins said.

Abdullah Arjomand, a recent UW graduate who still takes postbaccalaureate classes at the university, said one of his favorite professors, Michelle Smith, who taught in the Department of Genome Sciences at the UW, went to teach at a school on the East Coast last spring.

“I liked her a lot. She has a genetics background, but her focus was on education,” Arjomand said. “A lot of professors at UW are very academic: They don’t understand students and are super preoccupied with their own research. Michelle wasn’t like that.”

UW President Michael Young said that while UW community members “are not seeing a parade of faculty out of the door,” faculty retention is still difficult when the budget is tight.

“If someone walks out the door with $5 million in grant money, that’s a lot of jobs, and that’s a lot of research,” Young said. “You’re hit on both ends. You’re hit … and have a definable loss to the university. And you also have to incur a very significant cost to replace that person.”

Hopkins said that while undergraduate students “may not realize what they’re missing” when a professor decides to move, graduate students are often heavily affected.

Graduate students are forced to switch projects to work with other faculty, work with their relocated professor through distant communication, or make the decision to uproot their lives and follow their mentors to a different institution, he said.

Sarah Round, a senior majoring in political science and communication, said she lost two of her favorite professors.

Cindy Simmons and John Gastil, a married couple who both taught communication classes (Gastil taught political science classes in addition to communication classes), left last year for Penn State University.

Round said Simmons had mentioned to her class that her husband had been asked to chair the communications department at Penn State and that she had been offered the opportunity to teach law-related classes.

“And lastly she mentioned that they had not gotten raises,” Round said. “I saw that not only it was a great opportunity they were given, but here they were, not given enough of leadership opportunities or a wage increase to stay here.”

Susan Astley, chair of the faculty senate and an epidemiology professor, said she has been offered positions at other universities but has not left because of her roots at the UW and in Seattle.

“It’s not just money that faculty members are after,” Astley said. “There’s many faculty that wouldn’t leave. There are others that have the mobility and would.”

She said retention still is an issue for the UW, though she said she was unsure if the turnover rate at the UW was higher than the rate at other universities.

“After you’re in your third year in a state salary-freeze, other universities and private industries don’t have that environment,” she said. “It sets it up so that other institutions can offer the best and the brightest faculty good benefits and salaries. It’s just logic.”

Reach reporter Katherine McKeon at news@dailyuw.com.

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