When Dartmouth Hires Faculty

When future generations look back, even the sum of one million dollars will not be the crux of fate that returns brilliant teachers to the ranks.

When future generations look back, even the sum of one million dollars will not be the crux of fate that returns brilliant teachers to the ranks.

Recently, Dr. Jason Moore, director of Dartmouth’s Institution for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences, was hired by fellow Ivy University of Pennsylvania to head its new Institute for Biomedical Informatics.  Before accepting his position at UPenn, Moore was also asked to join Dartmouth’s faculty. According to Joe Asch ‘79’s posts on the popular site Dartblog, this loss of talent is not an unusual phenomenon for us — other great minds have been lured away by other schools, including a professor Scientific American magazine labeled as “should have won a Nobel prize.”  Meanwhile, there have not been as many high-profile hires on our side.  The problems of acquiring and retaining professors have not been lost on Parkhurst, which has established certain policies to make Dartmouth more attractive to young professors.  Nevertheless, some of these plans are less than ideal in facing the College’s hiring challenges; its dual mandate in research and undergraduate teaching, its small academic departments, and Hanover’s location.

Dartmouth has a twofold mandate: the College sees itself as both a research institution and a teaching-oriented liberal arts school.  While this sounds impressive, it places an undue burden on professors, who must simultaneously teach classes and publish.  This has taken its toll: in 2014, U.S. News downgraded the College’s long-held #1 ranking in “Undergraduate Teaching” to #4; meanwhile, Dartmouth’s research output has never reached the level produced by peer institutions.  Trying to hire professors that only fit within the Venn diagram overlap of “excellent teacher” and “prolific researcher” sharply limits the applicant pool from which Dartmouth has to choose.

The aspiring professors that fit Dartmouth’s vision of researcher-cum-mentor end up facing the so-called “playmate problem.”  Dartmouth’s small size relative to peer institutions translates directly to smaller academic departments; as a result, new hires will find only one or two colleagues in their respective specialties, while those entering larger research universities will find perhaps ten or twenty coworkers dedicated to their subfield.  This places a larger onus of responsibility on each individual professor to produce research and lead their departments — both a boon and a bane.  Smaller departments mean fewer opportunities for in-house peer editing and fewer resources, but also more independence and possibilities to advance to higher positions.  Furthermore, the size of the departments allows for greater flexibility. Researchers are able to cooperate much more effectively due to the lack of rigid departmental structures. Dartmouth’s graduate schools are also more closely tied to undergraduates, giving students unique access to high-level programs. Thus, while Dartmouth’s small size may seem to be a handicap, we cannot assume it is only a limitation.

From this curtailed group, Dartmouth must draw people to Hanover, New Hampshire. Surprisingly, Hanover’s location is not as limiting as some consider it to be when it comes to hiring. Choosing between a vivid urban environment and a place where people “don’t have to lock their doors,” aspiring professors tend to see location as more “of a wash,” as Dean of Faculty Michael Mastanduno explained in a talk last spring.  He went on to extol Hanover’s natural beauty and strong public school system as pulls for professors and families. Nevertheless, Dartmouth’s location does present certain problems for prospective hires. First, Hanover’s size makes it difficult for professors’ spouses to find employment. Besides Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, the local schools and shops, and Dartmouth proper, there are no major employers. Secondly, unlike in most rural communities, the cost of living in Hanover is 32% higher than the national average. Compounded with a median home price double the national average, the inability to attain a second job can be a dealbreaker for young families.

Furthermore, some people concerned with diversity may see the lack of large minority communities in Hanover to be discouraging. According to the most recent U.S. Census, Hanover’s population is 80% non-Hispanic white, and “underrepresented minorities” make up less than 9% of the population. In contrast, these minorities make up 35% of the national population. Many see this as an issue, particularly President Phil Hanlon and Provost Carolyn Dever, who promised last October to increase faculty diversity.  There is one major problem: the number of professors that fit Dartmouth’s requirements is simply too small to create an effective pool — the subset of professors who are members of ethnic minorities is, of course, even smaller.  This is exacerbated by the fact that all of our peer institutions are also seeking increase diversity, meaning that small supply of qualified minority scholars is pressured by a significant amount of demand.  Minority professors also have a duty that other professors do not face: undergraduate groups that support minority students often seek professors of the same ethnicity to guide students, meaning that in addition to teaching and researching, these professors must also be counselors.

Because of the difficulty the College has faced in hiring underrepresented minorities, the school has taken several steps to proactively increase representation. When a department seeks to hire new faculty, it begins by compiling a pool of potential candidates, which is pared down to a shortlist of three. If that list includes no minorities, Dean Mastanduno’s office encourages the department to add the highest-ranked underrepresented minority candidate to the interview process. The College will put in extra resources to hire an additional professor if the minority candidate did not get the position. Furthermore, the College will work to create a new position for a promising minority professor candidate if one is found incidentally.  Thus, Dartmouth hopes to lay the groundwork for a more diverse generation of professors by hiring minority post-doctoral students and assistant professors.

Dartmouth is also seeking to increase its retention of existing faculty, by extending its personal approach to student affairs to faculty. For instance, assistant professors receive much more guidance and counseling during their six pre-tenure years than assistant professors at other schools. These professors have annual meetings with associate deans, and receive an in-depth midterm review after three years, ensuring that they can improve their mistakes and stand a better chance at receiving tenure. On the other hand, many larger institutions essentially leave young assistant professors out in the cold, giving little advice until the tenure review. Dartmouth is also seeking to decrease inter-departmental conflicts, using its closer, less defined structure to deter resource-competition. In short, Dartmouth hopes to bring together its faculty without the antagonism present in larger institutions.

Is this what is to be done?  Is the answer, as our President and Provost have advanced, simply throwing more resources at this perceived issue?  In their aforementioned fall announcement, Hanlon and Dever committed to spend one million dollars on this initiative, creating a diversity czar to bestow funds upon departments that reach out to hire more minority professors.  But this approach focuses too much on the mundane; it faces the same problem of nations going to war to attain superiority: an undue priority placed upon resources.  There is a finite number of professors in the world and an even smaller amount of minority professors.  Any increase in our efforts to directly hire more minority professors will come to naught if other schools, which presumably also place value on having a diverse faculty, make good on that preference by also increasing resources to that end. With so many factors hobbling faculty hiring, as mentioned previously, it is difficult for Dartmouth to pull ahead in this race. Rather, the College should embrace improving on its assets on the opposite end of the spectrum from mere resources — its technology, both literal and figurative.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, we cannot hire, we cannot diversify this ground; the innovators, living and dead, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  When future generations look back, even the sum of one million dollars will not be the crux of fate that returns brilliant teachers to the ranks.  What will have more pull to applying professors is acts of greatness, lest we forget the 1960s, when President Kemeny was determined to pull Dartmouth forward into the computing era and invented the BASIC computer programming language.  Hopefully, the College still has what it takes to inspire professors of all stripes to its banner, instead of relying solely on the purse.

Ashwath M. Srikanth also contributed to this report.