In STEM fields, faculty retention an open question

Two students work at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design. Director of the CIDE John Morrell ’86 left Yale before its opening.
Two students work at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design. Director of the CIDE John Morrell ’86 left Yale before its opening. Photo by Nazerke Bakytzhan.

When John Morrell ’86, a professor of mechanical engineering, was named director of the highly-anticipated Center for Engineering Innovation and Design in May 2011, engineering students and faculty had no idea that he would leave the University for a job offer at Apple a month before the Center’s opening.

His sudden departure left the CEID without a director and reversed the faculty growth that the School of Engineering and Applied Science had been seeking to accelerate.

Though faculty retention is an issue for all departments at Yale, professors interviewed disagree on whether the need for newer facilities on Science Hill has hampered the ability of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) departments to retain faculty. Associate Provost for Science and Technology Timothy O’Connor said that in the last four or five years, STEM departments face an average of four to five retention cases annually within a STEM faculty of 256 professors in 2011-2012. He added that he can only recall one professor involved in a retention case who actually left the University in the past five years. Though O’Connor said Yale’s STEM departments generally do “very well” in retaining faculty, he added that availability of research funding, Yale’s need for comprehensive facilities upgrades and personal reasons all contributed to recent STEM retention cases.

“The quality and quantity of lab space and teaching facilities are persistent problems for many science departments,” said David Post, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Those issues can make retention difficult.”

Post said that STEM departments should create a proactive retention program that would address many of the issues facing their faculty. He envisions a program including grants for exploratory research, equipment upgrades and lab modernization, as well as additional slots for postdoctoral fellows. These innovations, he said, would “reduce the wandering eyes” and keep faculty from searching for positions at other universities.

Though O’Connor said Yale already offers many of the benefits Post proposes, he said he agwrees that the University should aim to be as attractive as possible to minimize faculty interest in positions at other schools. He added that some classroom and lab renovations on Science Hill are currently underway.

O’Connor added that Morrell’s departure represented a unique case for faculty retention in the STEM fields, since Morrell left academia altogether to pursue a career in the private sector.

Post said the availability of research funding is most relevant for mid-career faculty, who may have used up all of the initial research funding available to them without attaining senior or tenured faculty positions. He added that several of Yale’s peer institutions have funds that faculty can use to create partnerships with peer faculty or embark on a new research direction entirely — funds that Yale does not offer.

Provost Peter Salovey said in an email Thursday that his office pays close attention to retention cases across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, adding that he and each of the deputy provosts meet with faculty who they hear are considering leaving Yale for another university.

Still, other science professors do not see faculty retention in general as a particularly severe issue in the sciences, and some said many cases of faculty loss may be driven by factors outside of Yale’s control.

“I don’t think faculty turnover in the sciences is … particularly more problematic at Yale than it is at other universities,” said Michael Koelle, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor. “Yale also hires professors away from other universities. It is not uncommon for a professor to move to a new university once or twice in their career.”

Physics Department chair Meg Urry said only two faculty left the physics department recently, and both did so to return to their home countries. Chemistry professor Robert Crabtree said some faculty loss may be family-related, such as professors’ spouses getting jobs elsewhere.

All four senior science majors interviewed said they do not feel that faculty retention in the sciences is a particularly pressing issue, adding that they have not been personally affected by faculty loss. Still, chemistry major Emma Alexander ’13 said she has noticed its negative impact.

“I haven’t noticed any changes in my classes as a result of lost faculty, but it can be a big problem for interdisciplinary research groups,” Alexander said. “The social robotics group just lost two faculty members from different areas right after it started a project that brought in a $10 million grant. It’s important that lost faculty be replaced quickly if Yale wants to be competitive in the sciences.”

There are currently 15 STEM departments.

Comments

  • Claire

    My comment may be unnecessarily critical, but I noticed some editorial problems. The first sentence in the caption under the photo mentions the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design and the second sentence refers to it as CIDE instead of CEID. Also, the sixth paragraph has the word “agwrees” in it. The general content of the article isn’t harmed by these errors but I have seen similar errors in many of the articles posted on this site over the last few months and I’m surprised that articles posted online by Yale students have so many typos and problems with punctuation and grammar. This may seem petty but attention to detail, particularly in published written content, matters and may detract from the message.