Last week my colleague in the institutional research office, Kimberly Dyer, suggested that although we talk about student retention all the time, it’s reasonable to argue that faculty retention may also be an important metric worth tracking. Since turnover and longevity are well-documented markers of a healthy organizational environment, it certainly makes sense for us to delve into our employee data and see what we find.
From my perspective, this question also presents an opportunity to spell out the critical importance of context in making sense of any institutional data point. In the same way that we want our students to develop the ability to withhold judgment while evaluating a claim, we help ourselves in all sorts of ways by knowing how to place institutional metrics in their proper context before concluding that everything is “just peachy,” or that “the sky is falling,” or that, more realistically, we are somewhere in between those two extremes.
Although it would be interesting to look at employee retention across all the different positions that Augustana employees hold, the variation across these positions makes it pretty hard to address the implications of all those differences in a single blog post. So today I’ll focus on faculty retention primarily because, since faculty work is so closely tied to the traditional academic calendar, we can apply an already familiar framework for understanding retention (i.e., students being retained from one fall to the next) to this discussion.
Making sense of faculty retention numbers requires an understanding of two contextual dimensions. The first involves knowing something about the range of circumstances that might influence a proportion of faculty to leave their teaching positions at Augustana. Every year there are faculty who retire and faculty who move into administrative roles (just as there are individuals who give up their administrative roles to return to teaching). In addition, there are numerous term-limited visiting and fellowship positions that are designed to turn over. There are also the cases of faculty who leave because they are not awarded tenure (although, if we’re being honest with ourselves we know that in some of these cases this decision may not be entirely because of deficiencies exhibited by the individual faculty member). Obviously, if 10% of the faculty leave in a given year it would be silly to assume that all of those individuals left because Augustana’s work environment drove them away. To make a more insightful sense of a faculty retention data point, it’s critical to understand the proportion of those individuals whose departure is attributable to flaws, weaknesses, or dysfunctions in our community climate versus the subset of faculty departures that result from the normal and healthy movement of faculty within the institution (or within higher education generally) and/or within the life course.
The second contextual dimension requires some sense of what should be considered “normal.” Since it is probably not reasonable to expect an organization to have no turnover, the next question becomes: What do similar institutions experience in faculty retention and turnover? Without this information, we are left with the real possibility that our biases, loyalties, and aspirations will coerce us into setting expectations far above what is reasonable. Comparable data helps us check our biases at the door.
So after all of that . . . what do our faculty retention numbers look like? To come up with some numbers, we first removed all of the visiting and fellowship positions for this analyses in order to avoid counting folks whom we expect to leave. Instead, we focused our analysis on tenured and tenure-track faculty.
Without accounting for any of the faculty who moved into an administrative post or faculty who retired, our retention rate of tenured and tenure-track faculty has been 91% in each of the last three years. When you exclude retirements and internal movement, those proportions jump to 96%, 95%, and 94% respectively. In terms of actual people (with about 150 tenured/tenure-track faculty each year), this translates into about 6 people each year. This group of people would include faculty who aren’t awarded tenure as well as those who leave for any other reason.
The one obstacle to fully placing these numbers in context is that we don’t have any real way of establishing comparable numbers from similar institutions. Maybe most institutions like us would give a lot of money for a 95% faculty retention rate. Or, maybe none of them have lost a single faculty member in the last ten years. All we know is that the number of Augustana tenured or tenure-track faculty departing each year is relatively small. In the end, even if we begrudgingly accept faculty retention as the roughest of proxies for the quality of our organizational climate, these numbers seem to suggest that we have maintained a reasonably healthy faculty climate at Augustana in the last few years.
Of course, in these cases there may well be entirely understandable reasons for each departure that have nothing to do with our working environment. At the same time it’s always worth asking, no matter how small the number of people who choose not to come back, if there are things we can do to improve the quality of our work environment. Certainly there are things that we can improve that might never become so influential as to drive someone to leave. With the almost-completed Augustana College Employee Engagement study, we are on our way to identifying some of those issues. But at least on one measure of organizational quality that seems a reasonable, albeit rough, metric, we might actually be doing pretty well.
Make it a good day,