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Priorities for Excellence: The Penn State Strategic Plan 2009-10 through 2013-14

Goal 2: Advance Academic Excellence and Research Prominence
Strategy 2.1: Focus on Faculty Recruitment and Retention for Excellence

Faculty members are the heart and soul of any great university; Penn State is no exception. Although the current financial difficulties affecting the nation and the global economy will undoubtedly continue to impact the University for some time to come, the next decade presents an unprecedented opportunity to change the face of the faculty, and in the process develop an even more talented cadre of teacher scholars for the future. At Penn State, 15 percent of the tenured faculty is now aged 60 or older, a figure that has increased significantly over the past decade. Also, on average, about 5 percent of the tenure-line faculty turns over annually. Given such figures, the potential to significantly impact the character of a campus, college, or department in a relatively short time is clear.

In the coming five years and beyond, academic colleges and campuses must focus on replacing current faculty—assuming little additional net growth in numbers—with even more outstanding faculty who will carry on the responsibilities and traditions of excellence as teacher-scholars. Given the financial stresses in higher education, more of the faculty vacancies will need to be filled by more junior colleagues. These faculty members must have adequate mentoring and support systems within their respective units to ensure that they have abundant opportunities to succeed in an environment with high expectations.

Penn State’s commitment to the recruitment and retention of a more diverse faculty must also be maintained. The turnover that the University will experience in the faculty ranks also creates opportunities to enhance the number of women and faculty of color in our ranks, and to ensure their success in moving through the professorial ranks and contributing to our culture of academic excellence.

Unfortunately, a disproportionate share of net new faculty appointments made at Penn State over the past decade has been fixed-term. This is a trend that has characterized all sectors of higher education. At Penn State, fixed-term faculty have accounted for a progressively larger share of the teaching, particularly in introductory and other lower-division courses. Concomitant decreases also have occurred in the amount of teaching by part-time instructors and graduate assistants, while the most rapidly growing type of fixed-term appointment has been the multiple-year contract. This latter trend should help to provide greater continuity and ensure the quality of the University’s instructional programs. Many individuals on multi-year contracts have intentionally chosen career paths in which they can focus relatively more of their time on classroom instruction. Talented faculty on multi-year fixed-term appointments complement the tenure-line faculty in achieving the University’s three-part mission.

Yet, there is a growing sense of concern across the University that the research and scholarship contributions of our academic programs will suffer if the number of tenure-line faculty begins to fall. The important issue is in reality one of balance. To date, the number of tenure-line faculty has not declined overall, although certainly some academic programs and units have experienced declines. Tenure-line faculty members clearly provide the long-term stability and are critical to the reputation and quality of academic departments and divisions. That said, tenure-line faculty across the University must accept additional responsibilities for instructional assignments at all levels of the curriculum rather than fostering a dual and more specialized workforce in which lower-division instruction is the responsibility of fixed-term faculty. Given financial pressures and the need to set priorities that support excellence, the Executive Vice President and Provost must work closely with academic deans to develop approaches to hiring that will ensure a strong, continuing commitment to the recruitment and retention of tenure-line faculty and to maintaining and improving the infrastructure that undergirds teaching and research.

In addition, Penn State must increasingly set priorities across all of its disciplines, determining which areas we can appropriately support at a level of excellence that characterizes the University. In some subfields within disciplines we simply cannot hope to achieve a critical mass of faculty and students, nor support the infrastructure that is required to be outstanding.

Individual academic departments and divisions, through their own ongoing strategic planning, must identify areas in which real strength can be achieved and be prepared to disinvest in those that cannot be appropriately supported or have inadequate demand. In the current economic climate, the University is fortunate that it can take advantage of considerable flexibility in structuring positions, identifying hires and dual career hires, and allocating workloads. Thus, efforts to prioritize for excellence can and should include concrete long-term strategies for “cluster hiring.” Cluster hiring typically involves hiring in the same field or subfield within and across academic units. The Executive Vice President and Provost must provide additional incentives, working with the academic deans, to encourage hiring in selected areas where strength exists and/or may be built in a fiscally responsible manner.

  • Academic Deans/Chancellors—Primary
  • Executive Vice President and Provost
  • Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses
  • Vice Provost for Educational Equity