Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Where Do We Stand at BigU With Respect to Research?

Selections from the Minutes of BigU’s Research Committee

Is this a time to be talking about getting into the top three? When units cannot maintain their research capacity, how can they get to the top three? There is little to suggest that the University is on an upward trajectory.”


Senate Research Committee

Monday, October 8, 2007

12:30 - 2:15

238A Morrill Hall

Present: Dan Dahlberg (chair), Linda Bearinger, Jerry Cohen, Donald Dengel, Steven Gantt, Tryphon Georgiou, Shikha Jain, Paul Johnson, Michelle Lamere, Frances Lawrenz, Jennifer Linde, Virginia Seybold, Charles Spetland, Joel Slaton, Barbara VanDrasek, Sanford Weisberg, Jean Witson

Guests: Professors Tim Ebner (Neuroscience), Wayne Gladfelter (Chemistry), John Sullivan (Political Science), and Kate VandenBosch (Plant Biology)

Professor Ebner said that the metric for rankings in the Medical School is NIH funding. He concurred with the point about the relationship between department size and ranking: 75% of the ability to get funding depends on the size of the faculty. His department is highly-ranked but it is also one of the biggest. What would it take to move up in the rankings? That is a tough question; more research funding would help, but NIH is ‘in a recession’ right now.”

“Professor Johnson said it seems odd that the University aspires to be in the top three and yet does not seem to think creatively about what to do if department rankings are declining. How can the University be in the top three unless a lot of its departments are in the top 10? That seems to be a contradiction. To be in the top three requires resources, but departments are not staying in the top ten. He said he felt he was missing something; the path to the top three must not mean providing resources to departments to be among the best. Professor Ebner agreed; he reported that since 1999 the Medical School has lost 59 tenure-track faculty positions (it gained a lot of clinical faculty, however). They cannot gain in the rankings if they are losing tenured faculty. One analysis has suggested that for the Medical School to be in the top three, it would have to hire the number of faculty equivalent to the current CLA. “

Professor Sullivan commented that this all sounded familiar. His department also hired a large number of assistant professors; it has now been given permission to recruit some senior faculty—but they cannot match salaries. The top political scientists now make $200,000 and the Minnesota department is nowhere near able to compete. Salaries in Economics have skyrocketed even faster. For the first time, salary has become an issue for us, Professor Sullivan said. It is a question of retaining all their young faculty; there are a lot of McKnight Land Grant Professors now teaching elsewhere. "We are competitive in salaries for young faculty, moderately competitive in the middle range, and not at all competitive at the top."

“Professor Dahlberg said that Physics has about a 50% retention rate. Professor Gladfelter related that Chemistry lost two of nine retention cases, one of which they did not seek to match. Professor VandenBosch said her department is in the process of losing a retention case and lost another individual several years ago who is now in the National Academy. Professor Sullivan said his department had nine retention cases in the last three years and lost five of them; people left for various reasons but they received phenomenal offers. Professor Bearinger reported that her school lost two faculty at the point of tenure, both of whom had RO1 grants, because they could not compete on salaries.”

Professor Dahlberg asked the guests if they were able successfully to recruit at the senior faculty level. He said he hears often that Minnesota is a great place to steal very good junior and midcareer faculty and is curious if we can replace them. Professor Weisberg said that two of their last four hires were senior associate professors. Professor VandenBosch reported that her department could have but chose to seek junior faculty. Another factor that came into play was start-ups; they cost $400,000 at the low end, plus summer salary; for senior faculty start-ups are $1 million plus.”

Much of what has occurred has been initiative-driven, dating from the Yudof initiatives, Professor Ebner said. There are also external pressures (e.g., to do stem-cell research) that affect strategic positioning.”

“Professor Sullivan said his department has for 40 years tried to identify what it needs to get in and stay in the top ten, but in recent years, most expansions have been initiative-created or interdisciplinary. His department identifies where it needs to make strategic investments to be really good, but those investments often do not match University strategic initiatives.”

“Professor Ebner returned to the cost of start-up packages. Theirs have averaged about $525,000 over the last few hires but the numbers are escalating "to places we do not want to go." $1 million for assistant professors has become common, which his department does not have and which means he can't hire people—why would someone take $525,000 from Minnesota when they can get $1 million elsewhere?”

Professor Sullivan said that in the old budget model, CLA had a lot of soft money and could almost always meet start-up needs. Now there is no money and there will not be, but it was not a problem in the past. There is no established structure, Professor VandenBosch said; it is an ad hoc process, and for their last hire they scrambled to put together a package or else they would have lost the candidate. Professor Ebner said the new budget model is a total disaster for the Medical School; when it started, it put the Medical School so far behind it can never catch up. That problem appears to be widespread among the colleges, Professor VandenBosch commented.

Professor Dahlberg said the O&M budget increases every year on average; where does the money go? Professors Sullivan and Ebner said to central initiatives. Professor Weisberg, however, said the money goes to the colleges; there are only a couple of initiatives in the Provost's office. Professor Sullivan responded that a lot of money is now going to central initiatives. But not enough yet to set up premier centers, Professor VandenBosch added. Professor Sullivan agreed: departments are hurt by taking the money away but there isn't enough money to build the centers. At the same time, the budget model has increased significantly the amount of money available for compacts.”

Professor Cohen said it appears that departments that do a lot of teaching but do not have a lot of grants are in trouble, and that departments that have low tuition revenues and a lot of grant funds are in trouble. Professor VandenBosch said it appears that a lot of colleges are in trouble. But funding from the state is up, Professor Weisberg observed. The state has been cheap in recent years, Professor Ebner said, and the positive years have provided a trivial amount in meeting faculty salary needs. Professor VandenBosch commented that it is rare to receive state funds for faculty salary increases (other than for star faculty). Professor Weisberg reported that the Provost has said the legislature has chosen not to fund salary increases except for stars.”

“Professor Bearinger said that her school has lost approximately 10% of its tenured and tenure-track faculty, even two assistant professors who had just received a positive tenure decision. Is this a time to be talking about getting into the top three? When units cannot maintain their research capacity, how can they get to the top three? There is little to suggest that the University is on an upward trajectory.”

“Professor Dahlberg asked the guests about infrastructure and staff needs. Professor Ebner said that if the University is to maintain a world-class research enterprise, faculty must have the tools to do research, some of which are very expensive. In the Academic Health Center they have gone to Internal Service Organizations (ISOs), so faculty must pay for equipment use. The University must pay for equipment, and while the faculty should pay some marginal cost for use, the ISOs are supposed to break even, which is a struggle, so they can't begin to buy new equipment because it's so expensive.”

Professor VandenBosch agreed that in an area where the University wants to grow, it makes a difference if faculty have to pay their own way. What the University does is strategic planning, not strategic budgeting, and it does not decide what it should not do, or do less of. And it cannot change its mind every few years – there needs to be continuity to build a strength. In terms of infrastructure, staff are important, but funds are invested in faculty lines so staff lines are cut—or the faculty grows but the staff does not. Faculty do not have staff help with grant proposals, especially for centers.”

One of the most important infrastructure needs is funding for graduate students, Professor Ebner said. The University has not paid enough attention to the recruitment and support of graduate students. Some new funds have gone into the area, but they are inadequate. The University also does not pay attention to graduate education; in one review of a Medical School department, a reviewer wrote that he had never seen a university that invested so little in graduate education. There is little understanding across the University about the importance of graduate education in the research enterprise.”

“Professor Sullivan said it has been increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the best people. That situation has to do with departmental autonomy and the strength of core discipline. His department was in the top 15 from the 1920s until recently, and it was in the top because it made decisions on the basis of the authority of the department faculty. Will departments make decisions on the basis of the faculty working together or will decisions be made by a central unit? In his case, for example, the Dean's office changed department salary recommendations—and in his department, the faculty all review all the salaries and make recommendations. That is an example of the loss of autonomy. Moreover, there has been a shift in funding away from core disciplines toward interdisciplinary centers. Professor Sullivan said he is not optimistic that the social sciences can get back to the top three because there is nation-building occurring: colleges are taking over many department functions and colleges are being constrained by central administration.”

Professor Dahlberg observed that in his department, they are expanding in areas they believe either are or will be the next frontiers in Physics will be (e.g., cosmology), but not medical devices, and energy, two areas the University wants to emphasize. Many faculty feel it is now more difficult to expand in areas that would move Physics up in the rankings while likely easier to hire people in the research areas directed by the University.”

Professor Dahlberg asked the four guests to grade faculty recruitment, retention, and support at the University. The grades were:

Recruitment: B-, B+ junior faculty and B overall, B, B+ for junior faculty and D for senior faculty

Retention: C, B-, B-, B+ for junior faculty and D for senior faculty

Support: D-, C-, C, C- (for the most recent ten years)

Not a very good report card. OurLeader and ET might consider the opinion of these folks and think about engaging in a discussion, rather than continuing to avoid one.

Ciao, Bonzo


momo said...

And there you have it. It would be relatively cheap to buy a world class faculty in the humanities (lower salaries, lower start-up costs, etc) but even there we are losing people because of insane nickel-and-diminng, which is the result of constant cutbacks. CLA is a revenue cash-cow for the U, but my department can no longer pay for very basic expenses in searching and recruiting of faculty, research support for grad students, etc,even though we generate an enormous amount of cash through high enrollments. The budget model is antithetical to any ideas about building a better U.

Mr. B. said...

Thank you for your comments, Momo. I understand from colleagues that CLA is getting tired of being the U's cash cow. Hopefully they will do something about this, although given what goes on around here it is hard to imagine what they can do...

The disturbing thing about this whole situation is that the administration is not interested in engaging in a conversation with faculty about our problems. In fact, their strategy is either to ignore contrary opinion or to deny that there is a problem.

Unfortunately, the benchmarks they have set are not going to be fulfilled even in the short run and eventually the citizens of the state and the legislature will realize this. You can only brag about better ACT scores for so long before someone asks where you stand with respect to your competition. You can only brag about research for so long until someone asks the same question.