Earlier this fall, New York University announced a $2.5 billion fundraising campaign to build on the private university’s reputation. In its plan, it proposed adding 125 new faculty members to its liberal arts college by raising about $200 million. Recently it achieved that goal and has even wooed one professor away from the University.

In response to the competition for top faculty in the world of academia, the University is actively seeking to recruit highly accomplished professors by increasing the number of endowed chairs.

An endowed chair or professorship is typically a privately funded position. An individual — sometimes a company — often gives money to the University to either create a new faculty position or retain a current one.

As it endures a $40 million budget cut from the state Legislature — and as the state foresees another shortfall this year — the University believes creating more endowed positions will allow it to retain and attract top faculty. But progress could prove difficult, since numerous schools like NYU have the financial resources to lure prime faculty away.

“We don’t want other universities hiring away our best faculty. We want to keep them. And this isn’t the only way to keep them, but it is one way to keep them,” said Janet Weiss, associate provost for academic affairs.

As the competition grows between public and private universities for top professors, the University is finding these positions increasingly more important.

“We are often raided for our faculty. We are often a target of other institutions. Retention is as important as recruiting,” said Sheila Cumberworth, who serves on the LSA’s fundraising campaign and is a volunteer coordinator for development.

Endowing a full-time professor currently costs at least $2 million at the University, spread over a number of years, but that amount increases depending on the field and the needs of the particular faculty member. The money partially pays for salary and benefits and often includes money for research.

Weiss said the University seeks endowed positions to attract “superstar” faculty from other universities, to retain current faculty members and to allow the University to hire professors in an unexplored or underfunded academic field.

A number of colleges, including LSA and the College of Engineering, are vigorously fundraising and trying to add more endowed positions.

“It’s been one of my objectives since I became dean, and it’s been a high priority item in our fundraising campaign,” Engineering Dean Stephen Director said.

The college started a four-year campaign in May to raise $300 million. One goal of the campaign is to raise money for 16 more endowed chairs, which would raise its total to 50.

LSA, now about halfway through its own $300 million campaign, has set a $75 million goal for faculty support, and endowed professorships are the primary component. The college currently has 41 full professorships, but it does not have a numerical goal of how many new chairs it seeks to create. It hopes each position will receive between $2.5 and $4 million.

But getting money for endowed chairs is not easy. Most donors have some ties to the University, and so the College of Engineering has been searching for alumni willing to fund the chairs. It tries to educate potential donors on the value an endowed chair adds to the institution, Director said. In the end, the decision comes down to two factors: financial capability and interest in donating, he added.

“We don’t have enough endowed chairs to give to those who deserve them,” Director said.

And when administrators win endowments, they are often tailored to specific fields.

In 1999, for example, businessman Samuel Zell and philanthropist Ann Lurie — who donated for her deceased husband Robert, one of Zell’s partners — gave $10 million for entrepreneurial studies to the Business School. At the time, the school did not have any tenured professors studying entrepreneurship. Their funds eventually created the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

Since endowed professorships are often tailored to specific research interests, they can restrict colleges in which current professors can receive these coveted awards. Sometimes, a professor receives an endowment because of his or her field, and not just his credentials.

“The college is not free to award that chair to the most deserving person in the college,” Director said. But it is looking for funding in all areas. “We have extremely deserving faculty in all of our departments,” he said.

For some, this situation creates a number of problems. John Curtis, director of research for the American Association of University Professors, expressed concern that these positions could stifle academic freedom and exploration. Private funding for one chair can come with conditions attached, restricting the discretion of the institution and its faculty to specific types of research.

“The faculty should be the ones primarily making decisions about who is qualified to be a faculty member, who should be promoted and those sorts of things,” Curtis said.

He added that these gifts could also foster an uneasy faculty environment, where professors no longer “work together” and are consumed with “rankings.”

Cumberworth acknowledged the focus of endowed chair gifts is sometimes narrow, but she said LSA’s campaign allows for some faculty discretion.

“We are more interested in having donors see something that they want to happen to invest in,” she said. But “I think the dean’s inclination is to support as many of the LSA faculty as he can, to empower faculty to reach their potential.”

The University does pay to endow some of its own professors. Currently 30 faculty members have the highest academic honors on campus: a Distinguished University Professorship, Weiss said.

 

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