Dr. Stephen Leonard, professor of political science at UNC Chapel Hill, is serving his second year as chair of the UNC System’s Faculty Assembly. He represents more than 16,000 professors across North Carolina’s public universities. Leonard sat down with the Higher Education Works Foundation to talk about the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality faculty. The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
HEWF: First of all, how do you feel about Margaret Spellings as the new UNC System president?
Dr. Stephen Leonard: I’m a political scientist, so I think about the fact that the founders of our public University were also the founders of our state…. They established the University of North Carolina to serve the public good, to serve all the people of the state rather than the interests of a narrow elite.
That has been the mission, and ought to be the mission, of the University. I assume that Margaret Spellings is committed to that vision, just like all of her predecessors have been. We’re eager to work with her to promote that mission and serve the people of the state.
It takes a long time and a lot of work to become a professor. What drives you to teach and conduct research?
Being a professor really is a great job, a terrific privilege. If you talk to faculty about the work they’re doing and the subjects they’re teaching, they immediately light up. These are folks who are chasing down big questions, trying to solve the world’s problems and teach the next generation.
Whether you’re a carpenter or a plumber or a computer programmer, one of the most interesting aspects of your work is trying to solve these complicated puzzles. And I really think that’s true of faculty, as well. It’s what makes the work so exciting and so rewarding.
Are we getting the talent we need at our public university campuses?
We have truly fantastic people, but we’re struggling to keep them and recruit the next generation. We’re having trouble at all levels – faculty, staff and administrators – with recruitment and retention.
Salaries have been flat, even as the cost of living has gone up. Things like housing, which can be expensive in college towns; parking, which can be very expensive on campuses; child care and health care — all of those basic costs are rising while wages haven’t.
But it isn’t just about the money. There’s a sense that the work is not respected, and the conditions for doing the work — academic freedom, for example — are threatened. People want to be able to do the work they’ve been hired to do.
We’re talking about jobs that are highly specialized. There really aren’t that many people who do it at the level we expect in North Carolina.
Where are you seeing the most difficulty in finding and keeping good instructors?
I think one of the biggest areas where we’re having trouble is with our junior faculty. These are the folks who are going to lead our institutions for the next 20 years, and that’s where we’re being bled. It’s not just about keeping established superstars, but about fighting for the junior associates and assistant professors who are being poached off. Other universities know that’s where you find your next generation of rising stars.
The working conditions may be better elsewhere, the pay is often better elsewhere, and so we lose the people whom we need to lead our campuses into the future.
People are frankly discouraged by the work climate in North Carolina right now. If they get a chance to go somewhere where they know their work is respected and supported, they’ll very often take that opportunity.
Aside from better pay, what can we do to improve the quality of our teachers and researchers?
We’d like to see the hiring of more full-time faculty. Bringing more of our contingent and part-time faculty members onboard full-time would make a big difference in the quality of the education available to students. Having faculty who can be fully involved in the life of the institution, who have a complete stake in the university, enhances the kind of experience we can offer.
How does the role of the faculty differ on different UNC campuses?
Each of our institutions has a distinct mission. My colleagues at the regional institutions may have a different balance between teaching and research, a different approach to service, and a different focus in their schools and departments. And that’s OK, if you think about our institutions as demonstrating a kind of division of labor across the whole state.
There are a lot of things that higher education in North Carolina needs to be doing, a lot of different constituencies that need to be served, a lot of different student groups that need to be taught. Each of our campuses takes on a different part of that responsibility.
As I tell my colleagues in Chapel Hill, we can’t do our job without the state’s historically black colleges, or our regional institutions, or our land-grant colleges. There are things those schools do that we simply couldn’t do, just as there are things we do that they couldn’t.
You need each campus to make it work.
What’s your biggest worry about the loss of faculty talent in North Carolina?
The quality of teaching, the quality of the educational experience that students have, is enormously influenced by the quality of working conditions for faculty. If we want to be the best University in the country, we need the best teachers and researchers in the country.
Give people a vested interest in what they’re doing, show respect for their work, and they’re going to do a better job.