Can well-being programmes attract world-class talent to an institution?

Aside from competitive compensation, research support and faculty development, how can a university attract the best faculty candidates? Ron Fricker outlines two programmes that meet the recruitment challenge head-on

Ron Fricker's avatar
30 May 2024
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Attracting and recruiting top faculty members is crucial for any university to hone academic excellence, drive cutting-edge research and amplify its reputation. Faculty affairs plays a pivotal role in this process; our mission is to cultivate a university environment and culture that promote the excellence, professional success and personal well-being of Virginia Tech faculty. 

How to make a university stand out to prospective faculty 

Given competitive faculty compensation and start-up packages at our institution, the question is how can we stand out to prospective faculty as the university of choice? World-class faculty, after all, may come from across the country or the globe and they certainly face complex factors when they consider where to progress their academic careers. 

So, why should they choose Virginia Tech?

As vice-provost of faculty affairs, I report to the provost and serve faculty on his behalf. Our unit’s most critical functions include facilitating the recruitment, retention, development, recognition and promotion of faculty. Most fundamentally, we seek to cultivate a university environment and culture that promote the excellence, professional success and personal well-being of Virginia Tech faculty. Our motto is: “Supporting faculty success and empowering faculty excellence.”

Two of our not-so-secret weapons when it comes to recruiting faculty are our dual-career programme and our work-life liaison programme

Dual-career programme to support new faculty

A potential tenure-track faculty member will often be relocating with a spouse or significant other, and meeting the needs of today’s professional couples is a key factor in recruiting and retaining new faculty. The “primary hire” may be the recruit, but their significant other matters, too. However, since Virginia Tech is nestled in a small southwestern Virginia town, it is a much greater challenge to find suitable work for a new hire’s spouse or partner than it would be in a large metropolis. 

Our dual-career programme helps these partners with their résumé or curriculum vitae, engages other local New River Valley employers to activate job networks outside the university community, and they facilitate hiring within the university.

As part of this programme for tenure-track candidates, we offer a bridge funding programme that helps Virginia Tech colleges or departments afford a spousal or partner position, effectively lowering the barrier for the college or department to establish a position. The expectation is that the college will fund the position after the bridge funds have ended.

One participant said: “The dual-career programme is an immediate network. I had somebody who was knowledgeable, who knew the university, who had those relationships and could give me guidance.” Another said: “My liaison from dual career felt like my teammate. She was advocating for me on the inside. This was a major transition, so it was really lovely to feel seen and heard.”

Work-life liaison programme

When a faculty member has interviewed with their potential peers and leadership, they may have questions they’re not comfortable asking the larger group. That’s where the 10-year-old work-life liaison programme comes in. The programme harnesses around 18 faculty members from across the university, meeting with hundreds of faculty job candidates every year. Every college at Virginia Tech has work-life liaisons, most of whom are faculty members who largely volunteer their time to be part of the programme, and faculty affairs facilitates the programme. 

When the more formal interviews have ended, candidates have confidential half-hour meetings with liaisons. These sessions allow candidates to ask about almost anything – and receive honest answers. Perhaps candidates want to know about paternity leave or accommodations for a special-needs child. What about options for swimming laps or finding like-minded millinery enthusiasts? Childcare and housing questions are common. Or maybe they’d just like to know where to go for a good spicy curry. 

The feedback we routinely hear from candidates is the work-life liaison programme showed them that Virginia Tech cares about its faculty and that the university would be a great place to be, both professionally and personally. And I can attest to this myself, where 10 years ago I interviewed at Virginia Tech. Most of the time I spent on campus is a complete blur now, but I clearly remember the half-hour I spent with my work-life liaison, now a good friend and colleague. 

Organisational structure to support world-class faculty

Organising a university of this size – we have more than 2,500 faculty and 38,000 graduate and undergraduate students spread out over nine colleges and encompassing over 280 graduate and undergraduate degree programmes across several campuses in Virginia and beyond – is no small feat. The Board of Visitors oversees operations of the university. Virginia Tech’s president, Tim Sands, reports to the board; reporting to him is the executive vice-president and provost, Cyril Clarke, and parallel to the provost is the executive vice-president and chief operating officer (COO), Amy Sebring. All academic units report to the provost, while all non-academic units report to the COO.

Achieving Virginia Tech’s vision of becoming a global top 100 land grant university requires world-class faculty. So, I’m tremendously proud of the faculty affairs programmes that bring empathy, inclusivity, transparency and holistic sensibilities into the faculty recruitment process. Achieving the university’s global ambitions requires accomplished, successful faculty and integration of those faculty into a scholarly environment that supports and empowers excellence and wellness. 

Ultimately, I’d love to see the programmes extended to the entire Virginia Tech community, but for now, I’m content that these extend to our esteemed faculty.

Ronald D. Fricker is the vice-provost of faculty affairs at Virginia Tech and a professor of statistics. He joined Virginia Tech in 2015 as the head of the department of statistics and has served as interim dean in the College of Science.

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