Scramble for staff

As many US universities stop hiring or cut posts in the downturn, others see a chance to snap up the best and the brightest - particularly those with their own grants. Jon Marcus reports

April 30, 2009

Mehrdad Alirezaei is a senior postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. He has picked a lousy time to find a new job.

In the midst of a recession that has battered the US higher education sector, Alirezaei has applied for 20 faculty or research positions so far, but has not received a single response despite his exemplary references.

"The job search is really frustrating," he says. Things are particularly difficult in California, where almost all universities have imposed hiring freezes.

In contrast, Blaise Boles has sent out nine applications, had seven interviews and received four offers, with more expected. A bacteriologist at the University of Iowa, Boles has an ongoing research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that he can take with him to a new employer.

Hiring freezes and even redundancies are the order of the day at many US universities. More than half have imposed full or partial freezes, and an even greater proportion have delayed staff pay rises, cut benefits, increased class sizes or sought more productivity from academics.

But some institutions are taking advantage of the situation by swooping in and snatching up the best and brightest young academics - and their research money - at a time when many of them are seeking to abandon financially vulnerable institutions.

Jobseekers and administrators at the institutions that stand to lose out call it "poaching". While it may not be particularly collegial, it is perfectly legal - and is causing something of a feeding frenzy.

Florida State University, a public institution that has seen its budget cut by almost $300 million (£202 million) this year because of a sharp decline in the state's tax revenues, has lost at least 62 faculty members, of them tenured and 35 on the tenure track, to universities with more stable funding and other incentives to offer.

"We lost people we didn't want to lose," admits T.K. Wetherell, the university's president, who says he has worked for years to attract bright new scholars by building state-of-the-art facilities when times were good.

But now times are bad and academics fear for their futures. "They're thinking, 'I don't need to put up with this any more,'" he adds.

Even some cash-strapped universities have chosen to move ahead with plans to hire new professors in hot disciplines such as nanotechnology, reasoning that they can attract leading academics at a time when even big guns including Harvard University, hit by slashed endowment income, have drastically reduced recruitment.

"In every challenge, in every crisis, there are opportunities," says Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, just a few blocks away from Harvard's School of Medicine and School of Public Health.

Unlike its Ivy League neighbour, Northeastern is now looking to recruit 46 scholars. "We are taking this as an opportunity to build on our momentum and to differentiate ourselves," he says.

By cutting costs in other areas, Northeastern has banked enough money to hire staff for new programmes in nanotechnology, sensing and imaging and network theory, while bolstering other departments, including some in the humanities.

"The way I see it, we are making bets," Aoun says. "We're making investments in some emerging fields. It's a strategic building process."

Northeastern is not alone. Tufts University, also in Massachusetts, is hiring 52 staff as it continues its $1.5 billion expansion programme.

Michigan Technological University is moving ahead with plans to hire ten staff a year to fill new interdisciplinary positions.

"In grim economic times, we need to focus on the essentials," says Max Seel, interim provost and vice-president of academic affairs at Michigan Tech. "Faculty and cross-disciplinary strategic faculty hiring are a necessary investment in the future and indispensable if we want to continue to grow."

Like Michigan Tech, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is a public university, and it has made the case to hire 40 more academics, although Wisconsin has one of the largest budgetary shortfalls of any state in the US.

New positions in areas such as microbiology and environmental studies will meet the planned increase in enrolment while also providing staff for programmes to help diversify a sagging regional economy now dependent on manufacturing and agriculture.

According to Richard Wells, the university's chancellor, Wisconsin believes that hiring fresh hands and starting new programmes will be part of the solution to the crisis.

"The worst thing you can do in a situation like this is to freeze, because if you freeze, you sink," he says.

He paraphrases the American scholar and pastor William Arthur Ward, who said that when troubling winds come, the pessimist complains, the optimist expects the winds to change and the realist adjusts the sails.

Although he may be resisting pessimism, Wells sounds a note of caution.

"We're seeing larger and better pools of candidates. That shouldn't surprise anybody. But one of the dangers is that you don't want to be offering positions to people who aren't truly enthusiastic about coming to your institution because it is the only place they can get a job. Of course, most people would give an eye tooth to have that problem right now."

Some private universities are in a strong position to hire academics, especially the ones that are not heavily dependent on endowment income.

Pace University underwent a financial reorganisation before the recession hit, leaving it healthy enough to hire 22 staff from candidates drawn to its New York location at a time when New York University and Columbia University are withdrawing from the employment market.

"As a private institution that is tuition-driven, we are in a specialised niche in the current economic environment," says Geoffrey Brackett, provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Pace. "We're in an area that allows us greater flexibility.

"We have pulled people from the Ivy League in the sense that they were in a pool being considered by those institutions and they ended up coming to Pace. We have people who are coming back to us after thinking about their options ... with renewed vigour."

Meanwhile, the poor employment market in other fields is fuelling enrolment increases in Pace's schools of business, nursing, education, computer science and information systems. As a result, it needs more staff.

"In terms of what you cannot do without, that's it - the faculty is the one thing that's sacrosanct," Brackett says.

Alfred University in western New York State, which has 178 academics on staff, is looking to fill ten tenure-track positions. The College of Saint Rose, in Albany, New York, has 14 searches under way for academics, even as it delays or defers building projects and leaves administrative jobs unfilled.

And Amherst College in Massachusetts, which has only 194 faculty members, is hiring five more. It has attracted so many top-flight candidates - with 80 people applying for just one assistant professorship in statistics, for example - that Gregory Call, its dean of faculty, says he regrets having put four other searches on hold.

"This is an especially good year to be hiring," he says. "We typically attract very large and good pools, but this year they are exceptional."

The same holds true at Connecticut College, which has 169 academics and is moving ahead with plans to hire 17 more. According to Robert Brooks, its dean of faculty: "Anyone who is hiring this year is in a fortunate position." His institution, he says, is drawing applications from "very, very fine candidates".

Many newly hired academics are bringing money with them. Although universities profess to be most concerned with candidates' teaching and research skills, those that are hiring admit to also being interested in how much external funding they will bring.

"In the sciences, you always want to know whether somebody is capable of getting grant funding," says Brooks, whose institution - a liberal arts college on a leafy campus in New England with fewer than 2,000 students and only a modest reputation for scientific research - has just hired a high-profile young physicist who is bringing funding with him.

Northeastern's Aoun says: "We're trying to capitalise on what we want to build and what we want to do, and get the best people. We don't look at them in terms of dollars and cents. Obviously funding is relevant, and for assistant professors you are looking at their potential to attract funding, but that's only one of the parameters."

But this particular parameter is important enough to make Molly Flynn the subject of a bidding war.

Flynn - who has chosen to use a pseudonym because, she says, "I don't want to scare anyone off" - is a biologist who recently saw one NIH grant renewed and is likely to receive another. Female and, at 44, comparatively young for a third-year assistant professor, she is chasing a job at a top 20 medical school.

"With the current funding situation, big institutions are scrambling to pick up funded people," she says. "Word gets around in a small world and so I've been heavily solicited for applications. One tells a friend, that friend tells his or her chair, that chair tells his or her friends. A lot of these places wouldn't even look at the area in which I work under normal circumstances."

Before the recession, she says, to get a position at one of the most highly competitive, close-knit American medical schools, you needed to have the right friends.

"But now, money is talking louder than friends, and places that wouldn't have even shortlisted me three years ago are calling. Institutions are looking for people with money in hand. It is a seller's market right now for the funded, and there are very poor prospects for young people who are not."

Alirezaei is in such a position. The universities to which he has applied have told him they want researchers with grant funding. His grants have ended, and he can't seek more because NIH and private funding for postdoctoral researchers is largely limited to five years and he is in the seventh year of his fellowship.

"A lot of postdocs are in the same situation and are very frustrated," Alirezaei observes. Many of them are sharing their unhappy stories on the online science careers forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which seems to carry fewer advertisements for posts these days than posts about their scarcity.

Even though the current situation works to her advantage, Flynn worries that in their obsession with hiring candidates who have their own research funding, "our institutions have abandoned their young people by cutting them loose and going after more seasoned people who are holding money.

"The partnership between institutions and federal funding agencies in terms of fostering young scientists has broken down and (the former) are reneging on their side of the deal."

While he has offers thanks to his grant funding, Boles says: "My take is that if there wasn't a recession, more places would be hiring. I have heard that many departments have had faculty retire but those tenure-track spots are not going to be filled until the financial situation improves."

Call sees this at Amherst, too. "A number of our candidates have told us that they applied to 24 institutions and 12 wrote back and said: 'Sorry, we've postponed our search.' And I've heard stories from colleagues here that the interview sessions at academic conventions have been much more sparse in terms of hiring. It is hard not to worry about the cost to this generation of scholars."

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