Examining Faculty Departure and Retention at Small Liberal Arts Colleges

by Sara Polsky

woman carrying box out of officeThe departure of a single faculty member can cause a significant ripple in the pond of a liberal arts college, as one person’s departure has the potential to impact the community when it comes to teaching, institutional governance, and morale to a degree not seen at larger institutions. Most research up until this point, however, has focused on departures at larger institutions. 

Inspired by his own experiences with faculty departures, Patrick Reynolds, Stephen Harper Kirner Professor of Biology and former Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Hamilton College, spoke to CAOs at 22 liberal arts colleges about the reasons for and responses to faculty departures at their institutions. In a newly published whitepaper, Reynolds explores the seven main reasons for faculty departures that emerged from those conversations, which Reynolds conducted during his 2016-17 appointment as Visiting Practitioner to COACHE. 

“I felt I had gained a lot of on-the-ground experience pertaining to Hamilton, and I was curious about how broad these issues were,” Reynolds said. In his conversations with CAOs, he hoped to find that “someone out there has figured out how to fix or improve” the common faculty departure issues liberal arts colleges face, including partner employment challenges and the departures of faculty of color. 

Reynolds uncovered “no model approach to fixing any of these problems,” he said, but his research points to several strategies for CAOs to explore. 

Why They Leave 

CAOs mentioned seven distinct reasons for faculty departures from their institutions:  

  • Partner employment, 
  • Faculty decision to change career paths,  
  • The challenges of retaining faculty of color,  
  • Issues with departmental work environments,  
  • The social environment for single faculty members,  
  • Proximity to extended family, and  
  • Superior offers from similar institutions. 

Partner employment challenges were cited as the most common hurdle to retaining faculty at small liberal arts colleges, as well as a hindrance to recruitment efforts. The challenge was particularly acute in cases where both partners were academics. “In the majority of cases,” one CAO told Reynolds, "they’re coming to me saying that their spouse needs some kind of job, and what are we going to do about it... I would say in at least 50 percent of the cases that’s it. And they’re usually not in the same department so then that requires me to go to a different department other than their own. And what I find is that, generally speaking, those other departments aren’t terribly sympathetic.” 

Reynolds said he found a “gap in understanding or expectations on the part of a faculty member... and what the institution felt it had the ability to do” when it came to partner employment. “They weren’t even at a place where there was difference of opinion, there was a difference between assumption and expectation.” 

Departures of faculty of color were also a particular concern for the CAOs interviewed. While faculty of color depart for the same range of reasons as white faculty, several CAOs also referenced a lack of community due to low numbers of other faculty of color. 

The Impact of Departures 

Faculty departures have a direct financial cost, particularly in the case of science faculty, who often need specialized equipment or specific laboratory setups. Departures also have an indirect cost to the community, as departments must devote time and attention to the hiring and orientation process, and as social connections within departments are disrupted.  

“Our retention rate percentage-wise is actually pretty good,” one CAO said. “But every departure is deeply felt... the percentages don’t really tell the whole story.” 

Addressing Departures 

Faculty’s reasons for leaving liberal arts colleges are varied, and institutions must respond in similarly varied ways. The CAOs interviewed described a range of strategies meant to understand faculty departures as they happen, address systemic issues that consistently contribute to departures, and support individual faculty. These strategies range from conducting climate surveys and exit interviews to clarifying teaching expectations upfront and working with nearby institutions to provide opportunities for dual-career couples. 

“The institutions that had those more active, engaged policies at least felt that they were doing all that they could” to retain faculty, Reynolds said, even if the payoff was rarely immediate. Longitudinal studies proved particularly important as an antidote to short institutional memories. 

The rise of remote work in response to the pandemic could be a “gamechanger” when it comes to partner employment, Reynolds added. “I can see a difference from the time I started at Hamilton to now. There are more faculty partners working remotely, and thus able to live here,” and remote teaching is creating additional opportunities for faculty members whose partners are also academics. “I think it’s going to be a significant change,” Reynolds said. 

For more insights into faculty departures from liberal arts colleges, read the full whitepaper