The pressure to maintain exceptional faculty can mean offering more money, like the four-percent salary increase that University professors will see this year, more time off, the promise of more academic freedom or even just a lighter workload.
But for Phil Hanlon, vice provost of academic affairs, all those things are a small price to pay if it means recruiting and retaining the most outstanding professors in the country.
“Universities are the ultimate knowledge business, which means their quality is driven by the excellence of the people there,” Hanlon said. “So there’s really no higher priority for a university than achieving high quality faculty and outstanding student body.”
Though Hanlon said the competition has become increasingly tough over the years, he said the University has managed to hold its own in the fight for faculty.
Hanlon said 50 professors have been stolen from the University’s 13 biggest faculty rivals — schools like Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin — in the past three years. At the same time, about 100 University of Michigan professors were approached with offers from the same group of schools. Of those, Hanlon said about 55 percent of professors were retained, while the remaining 45 percent were lost.
But when elite universities are in the market to cherry-pick faculty, they aren’t always looking for professors with years of experience.
At the country’s best universities, outstanding junior-level professors without tenure have become some of the most academically appealing minds in the market. Even Harvard University, Michigan’s No. 1 competitor for faculty, hasn’t seen senior-level professors travel from Ann Arbor to Cambridge in recent years.
“In the past five years, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has not hired any senior-level faculty from the University of Michigan,” said Steve Bradt, Harvard’s assistant director of communications, in an e-mail interview.
And of those who have left Harvard during that time, Bradt said none were headed for the University of Michigan.
“Among the very few who have left the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for other institutions in recent years, none have accepted positions at the University of Michigan,” Bradt said.
But while some University of Michigan professors have certainly made the switch from maize and blue to crimson, Hanlon said the University has to compete with more than just the East Coast Ivies when it comes to keeping the best — and often youngest — professors.
And in all of these battles, people like former University History Prof. Michelle Mitchell are caught in the middle.
Hired straight out of graduate school after earning her doctorate from Northwestern University in 1998, Mitchell said she still feels fortunate to have landed her very first job at the University of Michigan.
Despite the great start, Mitchell eventually left the University after New York University made three different offers during the eight years she was in Ann Arbor.
For her, NYU’s last and most attractive offer arrived right around the time she was up for tenure.
According to Mitchell, who left Ann Arbor in January 2007, NYU’s pre-tenure tactic is standard procedure for lots of other elite schools. She said other universities like Princeton University and Duke University, which also recruited her, frequently take the same approach.
“Often times when somebody’s coming up for tenure or right around the time that they’re publishing their first book, is when other schools might start taking a look,” Mitchell said.
Earning her doctorate from Yale in 1993, History Prof. Maria Montoya eventually came to Michigan in 1995. Today she’s another name on the list of young faculty who left for the private elites.
Along with her husband, Rick Hill, a former University of Michigan Law prof., Montoya was recruited to NYU in 2006.
Much like Mitchell, Montoya said the University of Michigan helped her get established in her field – and also gave her the flexibility to work elsewhere.
According to her, the University has no problem recruiting the best and brightest professors fresh out of graduate school. She added, though, that Michigan’s faculty recruitment efforts aren’t the same at every stage in the game.
“I think where they don’t do as well is when people are tenured,” Montoya said of the University. “Once they can go someplace else, I think it’s very difficult to lure somebody who’s tenured or mid-career to Michigan.”
With bigger salaries and better benefits, Montoya said it’s often the case that places like NYU and other elite private universities offer perks that public schools simply can’t match.
“I think when you’re trying to compete with a Harvard or a Yale or a Princeton, there’s just a lot of factors that Michigan can’t compete with,” Montoya said. “Especially given the sort of finances of those various institutions.”