Faculty Retention and Exit Survey

COACHE has completed the pilot phase of the first multi-institutional survey of faculty retention and departure. Until now, there has been no systematic, coordinated effort for like-minded universities to collaborate in research design or data analysis to develop a common understanding of faculty mobility. Beginning in the 2016-17 academic year, COACHE partner institutions are poised to make significant improvements in faculty exit management through a sustained commitment to this applied research.

In expanding the Collaborative, COACHE seeks new partners who share our goals: (a) to standardize, as much as possible across many institutions, the data collected and stored about faculty upon their departure; and (b) to understand the causes and patterns of faculty mobility.

Together, we will develop the data capacity and deploy a survey instrument to capture the experiences of faculty who face the prospect of leaving their universities. While administrative databases will help us to capture some of the costs of faculty exit and retention, the survey ties these data to important aspects of the exit and retention process, including:

  • the factors influencing faculty decisions to stay or to accept external offers;
  • the duration, progression, and observations of the job search and transition; and 
  • the qualities and importance of external offers and counteroffers.

With the guidance of subject matter experts and an advisory group of campus administrators, COACHE created the Faculty Retention and Exit Survey (FR&E) for full-time faculty who, in the prior academic year, had been involved in a retention or voluntary separation action. When partners agree to participate, we invite all of their faculty members who had an offer to work elsewhere to take part in this survey, regardless of their decision to stay or leave.

The survey’s themes span:

  • the search for a new position;
  • the nature of the outside offer;
  • the compelling factors in a decision to depart or stay;
  • the influence of spouses’ and partners’ careers;
  • the counteroffer process;
  • the transition to a new institution;
  • the work environment; and of course,
  • the demographics characteristics of our population.

We will administer this survey again in the winter/spring of 2016-17. With a shareable, adaptive, and validated instrument to replace the individual efforts of universities to date, COACHE and its partners will better understand how to succeed at retention actions, how to prevent retention cases in the first place, and how to make smarter investments in faculty development and success. In addition, we have learned that there is value in simply asking faculty about their experiences: doing so imparts a sense, even as faculty are leaving, that their university cares about them.

Questions answered about the Faculty Retention & Exit Survey

What are the reasons why faculty leave?
What is the scale of faculty flight?
What are the implications of faculty flight for universities?
What activities could better exit and retention data inform?
Who is eligible to take the survey?
What is required to participate?
Who on my campus should be responsible?
What is the timeline for participating?
When do I see the results, and in what format?
What are the costs?
Can I see a copy of the survey?
How can I learn more about participating?


What are the reasons why faculty leave?

In a recent flurry of articles, KerryAnn O’Meara and colleagues have challenged some of the commonly-held attitudes of administrators and faculty about the reasons why faculty leave. An institution’s tendency to blame “heaven” (better opportunities) or “hell” (the “writing on the wall”) insulates them from any personal or institutional responsibility for the faculty member’s untimely exit (O’Meara, Lounder & Campbell, 2014). The reasons for such departures are, in fact, nuanced, subject to influence and, perhaps, predictable. They include (in a list compiled from O’Meara’s extensive research, from the TIAA Institute, and from our own interviews with senior academic administrators at a large, public system of higher education):

  • ­Better opportunity
    • Higher salary, more resources
    • More prestigious department, institution (increasingly international)
    • Administrative appointment (e.g., dean)
    • Position outside academe
    • Additional education or training
  • Location and family
    • Career opportunities for spouse, partner
    • Better policies related to childcare (e.g., tuition remission), parental leave
    • Desirable geographic location
    • To be closer to family
  • Work environment and fit
    • Better campus climate for, e.g., women, URM, GLBTQ faculty
    • Intellectual fit
    • Lack of collegiality in unit
    • Potential for better work-life balance in a different type of position
  • Retirement
    • “Natural” retirement
    • Early retirement, but for another position
    • Negotiated exit for misbehavior
  • Writing on the wall
    • Not well suited to faculty career
    • Poor likelihood of tenure, promotion, contract renewal

The reasons actual faculty “leavers” provide for seeking employment elsewhere suggest an institutional culpability due to departmental cultures and processes—factors within the power of faculty and administrators to change.

What is the scale of faculty flight?

There is no national or even state-wide dataset that adequately captures the mobility of faculty from and within the academy. At one large system, however, we found that on an average per campus, per year basis, there are just 12 resignations. Even at the largest campus, only about 20 faculty resign each year. Concerning retirements, we found (on a per campus basis) barely more than 2 retirements per year under the age of 60, and just over 20 retirements over that age.

Not counted in these figures are the successful retention efforts of each campus. One system’s administrators reported retention rates ranging from 75% to 90%. While these estimates may not have included involuntary separations (e.g., tenure denials and negotiated retirements) and others for whom no retention effort was made, still, they suggest a population of retained faculty who could contribute to our understanding of the costs of departure intentions and of the reasons why faculty seek to leave their institutions.

What are the implications of faculty flight for universities?

Our interviews and subsequent meetings with one public system’s vice provosts and AVPs revealed local, state, and national contexts for their interest in gathering faculty departure and retention data. Most described the importance of these data in terms of the costs of even a single faculty member’s departure (see Kaminski & Geisler, 2012). These costs are often expressed in terms of (a) investment in the search, hiring, and development of the faculty member; and (b) the contributions that person makes to the institution, now no longer to be realized.

The investment includes search and hiring costs such as advertising, search committee staff, travel for three candidates, relocation, and the start-up package. There may also be costs associated with spousal/partner hiring, especially of dual-academic couples. Once in place, professors generate direct and indirect costs for orientation and training, release time, and teaching and learning support

The contributions include those tracked in research productivity metrics—numbers of journal articles, books, citations, research grants and the total value of those grants—as well as honorific awards from a faculty member’s division, institution, discipline and elsewhere. Such honors might include commendations for teaching, mentorship, and service. Often escaping measurement, but nevertheless important, are the contributions of leadership that professors provide in their departments, on committees, task forces, and the like.

Beyond lost investment and contributions, faculty and administrators describe the problem of departures also as a matter of equity. Do some groups leave for reasons different than—or even as a result of—other groups? Might knowing the answer help us address their concerns? In addition to these concerns is the low morale departments suffer when they lose faculty stars and good colleagues, not to mention the loss of national reputation to academic programs, which might subsequently be ranked lower as a result of the loss. 

What activities could better exit and retention data inform?

Many examples of the utility of exit data emerged in our interviews with senior academic administrators at institutions already conducting this work and at those seeking to mount such an effort. Some benefits redound to a system or consortium of universities, while others are realized by individual campuses. Knowledge from analyses of faculty departures has helped or could help by:

  • Suggesting improvements to chair training and development in the handling of faculty intent to leave;
  • Revealing whether or not universities are effectively carrying out their missions;
  • Identifying more quickly than could a single institution any resignation patterns with respect to disciplinary cultures, gender, and URM status;
  • Merging data across campuses to find out if particular competitors in the faculty labor market are offering particular inducements that make a difference in successfully “poaching” one’s faculty;
  • Informing decisions regarding the (re)appointment of chairs, reviews of deans, and allocation of FTEs to departments;
  • Educating deans about the efficacy of “home field advantage” in preemptive retention actions and counteroffers;
  • Giving budget officers the basis for projections about where new hiring opportunities should be made available;
  • Providing fundable propositions for interactions with foundations (e.g., Sloan, NSF ADVANCE);
  • Creating compelling cases to donors in the name of retaining the best and brightest talent, for example, by endowing chairs, funding a school for children of faculty, allowing more teaching on recall, or subsidizing faculty housing.
  • Offering sound research—colored with poignant anecdotes—in support of appropriations requests to the state legislature.

Who is eligible to take the survey?

Faculty who fall under the following two categories are eligible to participate in the Faculty Retention and Exit Survey: faculty who left your institution in the past academic year (not including involuntary departures and retirements); and faculty who received an offer to work elsewhere in the past year, but were retained by your institution.

What is required to participate?

Your institution will be asked to provide an Excel or SPSS file containing information on the faculty and former faculty who are eligible to participate in your institution’s survey. Take note: these data are not merely names and e-mail addresses, but an array of variables that will allow for robust analysis about the real costs and causes of faculty departure. All information will be transferred using our secure file-sharing portal that meets the standards of protection for “Level 3 High-Risk Confidential Information,” as directed by Harvard University’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects. Once your CAO (or other designee) sends these faculty a message announcing your work with COACHE, our analysts handle the rest.

Who on my campus should be responsible?

Two contacts should liaise with COACHE on the planning, data collection, analysis, and reporting processes: the first, an administrator or faculty leader responsible for faculty development, faculty affairs or academic personnel; the second, an institutional research officer or other “honest broker” of sensitive data in the CAO’s office. Together, this team will work with deans, associate deans, and department chairs to get the data COACHE needs about your departures and retentions.

What is the timeline for participating?

After you have signed our research participation agreement, the preparation of the faculty population file may take several weeks (depending on your existing capacity for administrative data about faculty). Our phased survey launch and administration spans two months. Data cleaning, analysis, and reporting—to the extent that reporting in the first year is possible—will take another 12 weeks.

When do I see the results, and in what format?

With so few eligible faculty (pilot institutions averaged 30 records), reliable findings will take time to accrue. You will receive only a brief summary at the end of the first year, but each year, your reports will become richer with disaggregated and comparative results. Initial COACHE analyses will explore the factors compelling faculty to accept the outside offer or stay at their home institution; later, we will report on differences by gender, race/ethnicity, and rank.

What are the costs?

The annual participation fee is $1,500 plus $100 per record in the eligible faculty population file. We will include a phone interview option at $400 per respondent. A multi-year commitment yields additional support; COACHE partners in the Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey yield additional savings.

Can I see a copy of the survey?

Please write to us at coache@gse.harvard.edu to request a PDF copy of the survey to review.

How can I learn more about participating?

Please contact us at coache@gse.harvard.edu to arrange a time to speak with Kiernan Mathews, the Collaborative’s Director and Principal Investigator.