The Prospects

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
One afternoon this spring, while sitting in a cluttered nook off the hall near her lab, biochemist Susan Gerbi grabbed a sandwich from a brown paper bag and contemplated a particularly knotty problem she was trying to solve. Although the problem had nothing directly to do with science, finding the right solution would be crucial to the quality and quantity of her department's work for some time to come. Gerbi, who chairs the department of molecular and cell biology and biochemistry, was hiring an assistant professor to teach biochemistry, and while a clear first-choice candidate had emerged, she was not at all certain that the candidate would accept Brown's offer. "All of the top schools in the country have been drooling over her," Gerbi said. "The people she interacts with professionally are all at Yale and MIT."

The candidate, Tricia Serio, was one of the nation's most promising young molecular biologists. After finishing her doctorate at Yale in 1997, she'd taken on postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, then finished it back at Yale. In that brief time she had emerged among the leaders probing the basic mechanisms of prions, the little-understood infectious agents responsible for illnesses such as mad cow disease. Serio had a grant to study a prion she'd identified in yeast - meaning that, if she came to Brown, she would bring with her not only a hot new research focus with important medical ramifications but also outside income in the form of both grant money and the potential for patents and even start-up ventures down the line.

Gerbi was wrestling with a high-stakes problem that plagues department chairs and provosts at colleges and universities across the country: how to compete for faculty members to replace aging professors while redirecting a department's research toward the work that will matter most over the next generation. Given the tenure system that is standard in higher education, today's faculty hires are likely to shape a school's academic reputation - for better or worse - for a long time to come, so the scramble for the best and the brightest is intense. But how can a university Brown's size compete with bigger and more richly endowed schools? Does young talent automatically go the highest bidder? With President Ruth Simmons determined to hire 100 new faculty over the next several years, how can Brown be sure it is making the right choices? Why would a scholar choose Brown over Yale or MIT?

If money alone were the deciding factor, Gerbi would not have had a chance with Serio. As Gerbi anxiously discussed Serio's case, the young prion expert was awaiting an offer from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas. "They have four Nobel Laureates," Gerbi said dryly. "And being in an oil-rich state, they have lots of money. They are ranked among the top ten research universities in our country." She did not look happy.

Fortunately for Brown, pay is just one of the factors faculty consider when job hunting. Others include the space and start-up packages for getting their research under way and qualifying for outside funding, as well as the time to produce the books and articles that will earn them tenure and cement their reputations. More complex issues are also at play. Faculty members want a culture that feels compatible, and they want inspiring colleagues both in their department and in related fields. For faculty devoted to teaching - which is to say, anyone Brown would want to hire - students' intelligence and drive are major draws. And increasingly faculty come in pairs, requiring not just one, but two positions, which makes recruiting even more difficult.

Last fall Tricia Serio applied for forty-two jobs; in each of those searches she was one of more than 250 applicants. She interviewed for eleven positions, and during each of those meetings she brought up the subject of her husband, Jeffrey Laney, a fellow microbiologist. The couple had met at Yale and then gone together to Chicago, where they were both postdocs. When Laney's adviser moved to Yale, Serio and Laney followed him back to New Haven, but last year they decided that this time, since Serio had the grant, she should be the one to apply for jobs. "That was the first cut," she says. "If a school could deal with both of us, it stayed in the running." Brown was one of four schools that invited Laney to interview.

After the dust settled in late May, Laney says, "we were down to Brown and Southwestern." Some schools' salary and start-up ranges had been low, and others had not been willing, or able, to create a second position, which made them untenable.

After seeing a steady stream of professors denied tenure at Yale, Serio felt strongly that she wanted to work at a place that nurtured junior faculty, which Brown seemed to do. She was committed to teaching and was impressed by the students she met while on campus. Perhaps most important, she and Laney liked the camaraderie they saw among Brown's molecular biologists. They could see themselves making a life at Brown; all they needed was a reasonable offer.

Gerbi's strategy, meanwhile, was to outwait Southwestern. Working with the deans, she'd created a job for Laney, and she felt her salaries were okay. Since lab space is critically tight, and the two use the same equipment, she proposed to Serio and Laney that they share a lab until new facilities become available in Brown's planned life sciences building.

With those problems resolved, what worried Gerbi was the start-up issue. Southwestern was likely to bid several times what she could offer. "Currently in my field, start-up packages [for assistant professors] run between $400,000 and $700,000," Gerbi said, "and Brown generously increased its typical start-up package from $200,000 to $250,000 this past year." She'd asked Serio and Laney to itemize the cost of setting up their lab - everything from baker's yeast to $500 pipette sets to the $75,000 fluorescence microscope and camera they'd hook up to a computer for watching cells in real time. Although the deans kicked in a little more, Gerbi was still embarrassed to make the offer.

"President Simmons has talked about the need to be competitive, to get the top people," she reasoned, "and here we have a top person who wants to come." Brown didn't need to beat Southwestern's offer, she said: "All we have to do is be reasonable." Beyond this one search, Gerbi worried about the long-term impact of low-balling job offers. "The rumor mill in my field runs rampant," she said, "and if word gets out that Brown is poor and we don't give good start-up packages, we can forget about trying to attract top people in the future."

So she waited. And she prepared to beg. "I'll go anywhere and everywhere," she said.


IN HER ATTEMPT TO RECRUIT Tricia Serio to Brown, Susan Gerbi was up against one of the most pressing challenges facing today's universities: a very aggressive marketplace. Brown is raising the bar and expanding its faculty at a time when schools nationwide are struggling to differentiate themselves from the pack, competing hard for young talent and raiding one another's faculty without compunction. The results of those raids occasionally make the Chronicle of Higher Education sound like People magazine. "7 Economists Leave U. of Arizona for George Mason U." read a Chronicle headline last summer.

One approach to recruiting is the star system popularized by Stanley Fish, the infamous literary and legal theorist who enticed a fleet of academic celebrities to Duke during the 1980s and 1990s, and then was himself enticed to the much less venerable University of Illinois at Chicago in 1999 as dean of liberal arts and sciences. There, Fish has built a faculty out of whole cloth, buying one superstar after another with deals no one else can match - not just salaries, but custom-fit centers and deanships. Fish writes a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education that periodically touches on the tricks and travails of his trade: the perils of wooing couples, for instance (divorce can be pricey), or the importance of maintaining a growth spurt long enough to make a reputation stick (five years, he says). His flippant tone and aggressive methods (he is now trying to lure Madhu Dubey away from Brown's English department) have won him at least as many detractors as admirers.

"I don't believe in the Stanley Fish way of building a university," says Nancy Armstrong, who has chaired the English department since 1999. "It makes the cover of the New York Times Magazine, but it doesn't build a faculty." Stars come, make a splash, and then leave, she says. Like many department chairs at Brown, Armstrong is "a big fan of the advanced assistant professorship," meaning she likes to bring in people who can be tenured quickly, putting them on the professional fast track. They are proven entities, seasoned teachers and scholars, and they're less expensive than senior professors. Still, Armstrong says, "you do sometimes have to spend big money."

Historian Charles Neu shares Armstrong's wariness of stars. He has just stepped down as chairman of Brown's history department, which is in the midst of a huge generational turnover. Between 2000 and 2003, nearly a third of its faculty will have retired, including some of its most esteemed members - Gordon Wood, James Patterson, and Anthony Molho among them. To replace them with faculty of the same caliber is an enormous challenge as well as an opportunity to cement the department's reputation for the next thirty or forty years. The trick is to identify outstanding scholars who are not prima donnas. "It's one thing to go out and hire a few senior people," Neu says. "We always have done that. But stars are problematic. Academic celebrities normally work out badly over time. They don't want to do that much teaching or departmental service; they want time off. Instead of hiring one of those people, you could get two or three or four assistant professors. Now think what a difference they could make!"


"BROWN'S OVERALL SALARY structure is too low" to compete in this climate, says Brown's new provost, Robert Zimmer. "It's not the right face to put forward." Zimmer came to Brown this summer from the University of Chicago, where he was vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory, the federal research facility. Simmons has referred to him as the "Big Bucks Provost," a nickname that Zimmer speculates may derive from his experience at an institution more accustomed to competing hard for faculty.

In the 2001Ð02 salary survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Brown ranked fifty-sixth for full professors' salaries, with an average of $101,800 [see sidebar, opposite]. The average salary for full professors at private, independent universities is $112,534. Dean of the Faculty Mary Fennell agrees that Brown needs to improve its salaries but warns that the AAUP data are misleading since the surveys include law- and business-school professors whose higher salaries skew the averages. The survey results bear out that concern: nearly all of the top-paying institutions house professional schools or major research facilities. Rather than rely on the AAUP statistics, Fennell has asked Brown department heads to compile "fine-grained data" on their rivals. She wants to know, for instance, exactly which universities each department sees itself vying with for faculty, and what those schools are paying. "Salaries are a moving target," Fennell says, "and the competition can change in just a couple of years."

Her office is taking a two-pronged approach to the problem of faculty salaries. On the recruitment end, Brown plans to make more aggressive offers. And to improve current faculty pay, additional funds will be added to the salary pool starting this year; then, over the next few years, salaries gradually will be increased, based on merit. "This is a big job," she says, "and it's going to require a multiyear attack."

Another front on which Brown will be competing more forcefully is start-up packages. "Start-up is an investment," Fennell stresses. "It's like yeast; it generates money." In the past, "Brown's ability to match other universities' start-up offers has been limited," she says, noting that the universities with whom Brown competes commonly offer $500,000 packages to junior faculty - "and much more when you get to senior hires," she added, with a skyward roll of the eyes. "Starting this year our start-up packages have been larger - anywhere from $300,000 to over a million in the sciences." In the humanities and social sciences, she adds, Brown is offering more as well. There, faculty need start-up funds not for labs, but to acquire research tools such as data sets, computers, and media equipment. Improving Brown's start-up packages will not be a matter of across-the-board increases, though, Fennell says: "We develop them on an individual level, carefully. We don't just throw money at people."

"Start-ups are not signing bonuses," emphasizes Zimmer. "They're really a necessity for people to get to work."

Charles Neu contends that if Brown is to compete for the best humanities and social sciences faculty available, it must also address another limitation: sabbatic leave policy. Brown currently offers faculty one semester of paid leave after six years of service. The norm among its peer institutions is now a semester off every three years. There's a problem, though: once Brown institutes more frequent leaves, which the administration has promised, still more teachers will be needed to carry the load while their colleagues are away. The planned 100 slots will not fill that gap, notes former provost Kathryn Spoehr '69.

Finally, when you talk to department chairs about competing for faculty, the conversation quickly and invariably turns to the notion of "critical mass." One of Simmons's primary charges when she came to Brown last year was to upgrade the Graduate School, and she quickly found that in some departments the faculty had grown too thin to support graduate students. One problem is a lack of depth. If a department has only one or two professors specializing in a given area, a grad student is foolish to risk going there: suppose they didn't get along? Or the professor took a sabbatical, or left?

A related weakness is a lack of breadth, which troubles even some of Brown's most prestigious departments. For instance, Brown's graduate program in history, which the National Research Council ranks fourteenth in the nation, is significantly smaller than all but one (Johns Hopkins) of those ranked higher. Brown has thirty-four historians, Princeton has forty-four, and Rutgers and other big state universities all have more than sixty. Brown has both depth and distinction in U.S. and European history, but to remain competitive it should improve its coverage of other geographic regions, says Neu. "We have one person teaching South Asian history, one in the Middle East, one in African history," he says. "You can't have a grad program [in those areas] with those numbers."

Graduate programs aside, many Brown departments, including some very strong ones, seem to be running on adrenaline or goodwill - or air. "There's been this false notion that you save money by giving everyone a little less than they need," says Armstrong. In recent years, she has added writing faculty to meet student demand, but that growth has come at the expense of the literature faculty, which Armstrong now hopes to rebuild. "There's been a lot of talk about Ôright-sizing' lately," says Fennell. "In industry and higher education the phrase has usually been used to mean downsizing. At Brown it will be a matter of growth."

Nowhere is the need for critical mass more apparent than in the sciences. Federal grants are available to purchase equipment and facilities these days, but to get those grants researchers must have a core group of users. Even the most expensive state-of-the-art facilities and equipment become affordable when enough researchers use them - each bringing in outside funding that pays for a share of maintenance. Without that critical mass, though, faculty can't qualify for grants to buy the equipment in the first place. It's an endless cycle of cause and effect, with the major cause being a too-small faculty to support cutting-edge research. Which is all part of Brown's argument for increasing the size of the faculty.

A facet of that plan that has garnered particular attention - and some skepticism - among faculty is its provision for hiring "targets of opportunity." Of the twenty new positions being created each year, the president is retaining five to be filled at her own and the provost's discretion. These slots will be reserved for outstanding faculty with the potential to "push Brown forward a quantum leap," as Fennell puts it. "If you find out that someone at Harvard or Yale whom everyone in your discipline admires might be open to moving, and you can convince the provost and the president that this person will increase the visibility and the excellence of your program, that's who we want to hire."

The upside of hiring targets of opportunity is obvious: these are by their very nature people whose reputations will advance the University's. They are magnets who will attract other scholars eager to collaborate with them. But some Brown faculty worry about the emergence of a two-tier system, with superstar scholars earning super-size salaries, refusing to serve on committees, demanding extra leaves, and shirking undergraduates. Brown's is an egalitarian culture, and people are protective of it.

"I don't think targets of opportunity should get special treatment," says Zimmer. "They are outstanding people and they should come here and be outstanding faculty members." All Brown faculty are required to teach, and that's not changing, he says. Fennell laughs out loud at the suggestion that a caste of celebrity scholars might be fostered on campus. "Come on," she says. "This is Brown!"

Ultimately, Zimmer believes, the real business of faculty recruitment goes beyond the details of salaries, start-up packages, and sabbaticals, and into the less tangible world of momentum. "People want to be at a place that's exciting," he says. "They want to be at a place where the boundaries of what they're thinking about can be expanded. So they want colleagues in neighboring fields." The ease of doing multidisciplinary work at Brown - a quality Zimmer calls its "intellectual porosity" - is a huge asset in recruiting, he says. Another draw, which nearly everyone interviewed for this article mentioned, is Brown's reputation for collegiality.

And a third advantage, says Susan Gerbi without a hint of self-consciousness, "is our undergraduates, who are the best in the world." Brown hires faculty who want to teach, and people who want to teach want students eager to challenge and build on what happens in class. As one department chair put it, referring to visits by prospective faculty: "We would never schedule an interview while students are on break."

Where money does become important, Zimmer says, "is in demonstrating that the University is not only ambitious in the programs it wants to build, but that it's serious about doing what it takes to hire other top people. Faculty want to be recruited to a place that's going to build and have the capacity to act," he says. "Nobody wants to be the last one hired."


THE WEEK BEFORE COMMENCEMENT, Zimmer, who was still working for the University of Chicago, was at Brown for Corporation meetings and to attend to several other matters. One of those matters, it turned out, had to do with Tricia Serio and Jeff Laney. When he was later asked if he had authorized an increase in their start-up packages, Zimmer grinned: "Of course I did. That decision took about three seconds."

So, armed with her start-up funds, Susan Gerbi made Serio and Laney her offer. They accepted. And a month later they were in Providence checking out their new lab space with Peter Holden, director of support services for the Brown Medical School. As Holden talked about refrigerators, natural gas lines, and network drops, Serio and Laney looked like any young couple checking out a new apartment. Their needs were pretty basic: plenty of bench space, stools and chairs, file cabinets, a darkroom space for the microscope. They tested a black plastic curtain Holden had devised for another researcher, and Serio was wary. "Okay," she finally agreed, "but you'll be hearing from me if it's not dark enough." Pointing to the fluorescent overheads, Holden asked, "Any special light needs?"

"Just darkness," Serio said with a grin.

Later, over an iced tea on Thayer Street, the two young scholars talked about their decision to come to Brown. Money, said Serio, was not the issue. Salaries were comparable at most of the schools where they interviewed. What differed were start-up funds, and those ranged dramatically. "The joke is that there's no reason to move to Dallas except for the money," said Laney. "And it's true. They throw money at you."

What clinched the deal, they said, was the feel of the place - Brown's collegiality, its warmth, and its reputation for supporting junior faculty. While on campus interviewing, they watched as Gerbi's department celebrated a graduate student's thesis defense with cake. "Everyone brought their kids," said Serio, "and they all knew each other's families." Then she added, "We were tainted by our experience at Yale." Laney's adviser there had left after being refused tenure, and in all their years in New Haven they'd never seen a molecular biologist tenured. "Here," said Serio, "the department has a vested interest in your success."

"We're homebody-type people," said Laney. "If I spent my whole career expecting to move on, I'd be miserable. You invest part of yourself in this bigger thing, and over time the place becomes part of you. I want to contribute to the community."

Other factors, they said, included Brown's undergraduates and its location - they like the Northeast. Pressed to identify drawbacks, they mentioned the lack of lab space. And parking. And the fact that Providence is uncomfortably close to Red Sox territory; they're Yankees fans.

Susan Gerbi was right. She didn't need to beat Southwestern; she just had to make a reasonable offer.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September / October 2002