UK faculty members 'dispirited' about the future

Matthew Giancarlo, director of undergraduate studies in English, taught a British literature survey course that was going to be scratched after the original professor became ill.
Matthew Giancarlo, director of undergraduate studies in English, taught a British literature survey course that was going to be scratched after the original professor became ill.

English professor Matthew Giancarlo is the kind of faculty member who's become more common at the University of Kentucky. He came here in 2007 from a far more prestigious institution (Yale) in part because he was excited about UK's push to become a Top 20 research university.

He's still excited, both by the quality of his colleagues and the teaching and research they do. But that high level of work and service is being compromised, he and others say, by the pressures to forward UK's lofty goals with fewer and fewer resources.

As the English Department's director of undergraduate studies, for example, Giancarlo spends about half his time on administration, and splits the rest between teaching and writing his next book on medieval literature. But this semester, the English Department's low staffing levels hit home when one professor's illness meant there was no one available to teach a British literature survey class needed by English majors.

So Giancarlo took it on himself.

"If we didn't teach the course, then we would have a class with juniors and seniors who wouldn't graduate on time," he said. "It would be disastrous for them, and I was the only person available who is qualified in the field.

"We're spread kind of thin."

When the 12th president of UK takes the helm in July, he or she will face a talented but demoralized faculty. While the overall number of faculty members has increased 18 percent since 2001 — with many of those people coming from more prestigious schools and graduate programs because of a tight national academic job market — they are being asked to do much more with less.

It's not just that they haven't gotten raises in three years. It's that they're being asked to teach better, teach smarter, get grants, do better research and move a monolithic institution forward with fewer resources and less support than in the past.

UK officials are quick to point out that, unlike many universities around the nation, the university has not had mass layoffs or furloughs, and benefits have not been decreased. And many tenured faculty members know that it's hard for the general public to have much sympathy, since academics have more job security than most people.

Ellen Rosenman, the chairwoman of the English Department, said she feels privileged to be in her job, but it's getting harder.

"I feel fortunate as a faculty member," she said, "But it's hard to do everything; you always have one more mission than you have the resources for," she said.

History professor Jim Albisetti said the overall financial situation — which has led to smaller salaries and bigger classes — has left faculty "dispirited."

UK's faculty-to-student ratio has slipped from 17-to-1 to 18-to-1 in the past decade, compared to one of UK's benchmark institutions — the roster of 20 public research universities against which UK compares itself — the University of Michigan, where the ratio is 15 to 1. Michigan is ranked 20th in that measure.

"We are terribly aware of other states laying people off," said Albisetti, "but the thought of any light at the end of the horizon is pretty hard to imagine."

When the nine measures UK uses (including student-teacher ratios and research funding) are combined into a single score, UK ranks 37th out of 92 public research universities that do at least $20 million in federally sponsored research.

Bottom of the list

UK's new president won't just face morale problems; as UK's faculty salary averages sink ever lower behind its benchmarks, the school could face the loss of many of the same faculty stars it has recruited in the past decade.

"I would say UK has been doing better compared to a number of our benchmarks, but it's hard to say how long that will continue because our budget is not improving," said Jim Tracy, UK's vice president for research.

Private universities, for example, are seeing their endowments recover, so they will move ahead in terms of salaries as state schools adjust to the "new normal" of scant state dollars.

"I'm hearing that privates are becoming more aggressive about cherry picking faculty at land grant universities," Tracy said. "That will be coming here if things don't improve."

UK's faculty profile got a huge boost from the Bucks for Brains program started by the state in 1997, which allowed schools to get matching dollars from the state for money raised for endowed chairmanships and professorships.

UK added 302 endowed professors and chairs since then, many of them engaged in research. In the past decade, for example, UK's faculty nearly doubled external grants, awards and funding for research from $174 million in 2001 to $338 million in 2010.

UK has also become more diverse, increasing minority faculty from 12.3 percent to 17.9 percent since 2001.

However, UK's benchmarks have also been moving forward in the past decade. Under federal research funding, UK received $155 million in 2010 and the nearest benchmark school, the University of Florida, ranked 20th in that measure at $231 million, according to a recent study on Top 20 progress.

Faculty citations — where a professor's published work is cited in discipline-related journals — have also improved from 44,928 in 2005 to 62,226 in 2010. But the 20th school in that measure, the University of Utah, has a corresponding statistic of 104,854.

After President Lee T. Todd Jr. released his Top 20 business plan in 2005, the state responded with $20.9 million in increased funding, allowing UK to hire more than 74 new faculty members, 40 of whom went to work in the College of Arts and Science.

"I'm surprised how many people came here because of the business plan," Todd said in a recent interview. "There's still a buzz here and people say they want to be part of it."

Todd said his administration has worked hard on recruitment and retention, and on raising salaries.

In 2005, UK ranked at the bottom of its 20 benchmark institutions. Since then, UK's average faculty pay has risen 16 percent — from $69,911 to $81,189.

But it's still at the bottom of the list of comparison schools.

(The data on faculty salaries does not include the College of Medicine, which employs the top earners at UK, many of them faculty members who run research operations. In addition, the medical center, which is self-supporting, gave raises in 2008 and 2010, according to UK officials.)

Retaining and hiring

Todd is currently putting together next year's budget, and said UK will do all it can to give employees raises next year. He, too, is worried about losing faculty to other schools, such as privates.

But in some ways, that's walking in place, as the school needs to retain its current faculty while it continues to hire more.

The biology department, for example, teaches the largest number of undergraduate majors at the university, 40 percent of the students in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Last fall, 843 freshmen declared biology as a major, with 31 faculty members to teach them. Probably 500 will continue with the major.

"The challenge is that we don't have enough faculty and we don't have enough teaching space," said Vincent Cassone, the biology chairman. He came to UK from Texas A&M University with his laboratory.

UK has 1,521 full-time and 450 part-time faculty members.

However, Cassone said he appreciates UK's commitment to improvement; with available funds, he was able to hire Ann Morris from Florida State University, where state budget cuts have meant deep cuts and layoffs across the state university system. Biology has also been able to renovate several labs, including hers.

Morris is just the kind of faculty member UK wants for its future aspirations. She studies zebra fish and their ability to regenerate cells in their eyes. Her work could have ground-breaking applications on human eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

Morris said UK was able to offer a lab for her research. She has hired four graduate students, and works with undergraduate biology majors on special projects.

She also likes being figuratively and literally close to other researchers at the medical center who are also looking into regenerative research.

"It's very exciting to be able to interact with them," Morris said, standing in front of a wall of zebra fish tanks.

Lagging salaries

But the excitement that someone like Morris brings can be short-lived if other people start leaving, Cassone said.

"Our faculty as a whole are way below the benchmarks in salary," he said. "We're not even close. That's a big problem."

It's a big problem everywhere on campus.

At the law school, professor Roberta Harding, like many others, took a pay cut to leave private practice in 1991. Twenty years later, law students want more specialized classes, accreditation teams want better facilities, deans want more publishing and a higher national profile from professors.

"Staff, faculty and administrators are trying really hard to be efficient and effective, and trying to give the students and the university the best bang for their buck, but you can only do so much," Harding said. "You end up working even harder and losing money because the cost of living keeps going up. Effectively, your salary is being cut, but they want to continue to propel the university, which requires more publishing and more conferences."

Harding said that to bring in faculty at the market rate, then, leaves current faculty behind, even though they may have been at the school much longer.

Division of resources

When faculty members see the big raises going to other parts of campus, such as the medical center and athletics, they wonder where the priorities really are.

"We need to be more inclusive and make all of us the University of Kentucky," said Harding.

Art history professor Alice Christ started teaching in 1987. She, too, believes that faculty members are less concerned with their paychecks than when "people start looking at other opportunities and think about applying for other positions," she said. "The pay here hasn't been competitive for years, so anywhere else you go you're likely to get a raise."

Some faculty members are also frustrated by the division of those scarce resources. It can seem as though more money is spent on science and research than on the humanities, when it comes to both staffing and new facilities.

"When those of us whose primary goal is undergraduate education are trying to provide the best, that's where we feel a little lost in the midst," said the English department's Giancarlo. "I think our students deserve top-notch classroom facilities, too."

Sixty-six percent of UK buildings were built more than 30 years ago, and 30 percent of instructional space is more than 40 years old, according to a 2007 facilities study at UK. The study found that three-quarters of the 167 UK buildings it sized up needed remodeling — at a cost of nearly $1.3 billion.

UK's continued struggle to provide more raises, higher staffing levels and facilities comes at a time when decreased state funding and a poor economy mean that money will be tight for the foreseeable future.

"There's a certain lack of faith that anything is going to happen," Christ said.

UK's salaries compared to benchmarks

The University of Kentucky's average faculty salary has improved in the past decade, but it still ranks at the bottom of the Top 20 benchmark institutions.

Institution Name 08-09 avg. salary faculty 09-10 avg. salary faculty Percent change in salary University of Kentucky $80,813 $81,189 0.5%

Salaries at Southeastern Conference schools

Institution Name 08-09 avg. salary faculty 09-10 avg. salary faculty Percent change in salary University of Kentucky $80,813 $81,189 0.5%
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