Despite glittering outside offers, Berkeley’s faculty are choosing to stay

The notion of a faculty brain drain at Berkeley turns out to have a lot in common with Mark Twain’s prematurely rumored death: Reports are greatly exaggerated.

Though the last few years of economic and other stresses have attracted swarms of competing schools with glittering offers for Berkeley’s talent — salary raises, new labs, directorships, free college for the kids — the numbers show that most faculty who consider moving choose to stay right here.

Berkeley has won 88 percent of the 33 retention cases settled during the 2010-11 academic year, up from 72 percent of 50 settled the year before, according to Janet Broughton, philosophy professor and vice provost for the faculty.

“So the number of retention battles is decreasing, and our success in retaining faculty is increasing,” she says. Seven cases still pending from last year could shift the numbers a bit, but not the conclusion:

There’s something about Berkeley that keeps its faculty here.

Why we are here

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Interviews with a sampling of professors who faced the difficult decision over the past few years reveal different versions of the same story. Ultimately, it’s not about money; it’s about the place, about the qualities of Berkeley that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Above all, they speak of the quality of the students and the intellectual rapport they share with colleagues.

Carla Hesse, who has won all but two of the 30 to 40 retention cases she’s handled since becoming social sciences dean in 2008, says the bottom line comes down to one thing: “Do they think this is the place where they can do their best work?”

For environmental geochemist Gary Sposito, a College of Natural Resources/College of Engineering professor who has kept an “offers not welcome” sign out since considering but declining a very attractive one from a private university some years ago, the decision came down to factors that are relatively immune to outside forces like a recession, state funding cuts — and hungry, well-financed competitors.

One is Berkeley’s public status. “It’s the idea that you’re contributing to the public good. We have a mandate to do that, and it’s a very important aspect of why we are here — to make a difference in the lives of the people of the state of California,” he elaborates.

The other is “the uniquely high quality of faculty and students and the intellectual companionship that goes with that,” he says.

Sposito uses his longtime collaboration with English professor and former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass as an example. They have been co-teaching Introduction to Environmental Studies for 10 years, and the class has grown richer with each iteration because “each of us has grown richer in our own discipline because of the class,” Sposito says. “It would be impossible to create that experience anywhere else.”

And even if such relationships could be built elsewhere, faculty here already have them, Sposito points out. “It’s like Laurie (Cindy Williams) says in American Graffiti: ‘You know, It doesn’t make sense to leave a home to look for a home, to give up a life to find a new life, to say goodbye to friends you love just to find new friends.’ ”

In his own case, he adds, having Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the campus’s doorstep is a huge plus for a scientist. He is a faculty senior scientist in the Earth Sciences Division there.

Similar themes emerge among faculty who considered offers over the past few years (see separate profiles of each).

Broughton raises another point that works in Berkeley’s favor: “I think we’re more egalitarian, more horizontal, than many other leading universities nationally and internationally.” It’s not unusual to find assistant professors, full professors, undergrads and graduate students all participating in the same intellectual inquiry at Berkeley, and faculty find it easy to move across disciplinary boundaries, she adds.

The 600-pound gorilla in the middle of all these stories is money. No one wants to leave or stay because of it. But it also can’t be ignored. Berkeley faculty salaries traditionally have lagged behind the market, leaving faculty vulnerable to offers from private universities with deep pockets. 

“Salary and research money for faculty is one ubiquitous factor,” says chemistry dean Richard Mathies, whose college sees two to three retention cases a year. Twenty-five of chemistry’s 60 faculty have considered offers in the last seven years, he says: “When you’re a top-ranked department, everybody wants to hire your faculty.”

Only three of the professors whose cases he’s handled left, and all moved to new paths in life: top administrative positions in two cases, and a university with a medical school, something Berkeley couldn’t offer, in the third.

To help level the playing field, Berkeley may provide faculty members with raises, housing assistance and either research funding or a lab upgrade. But in the end, Mathies says, his faculty stayed because of their work here, the quality of the graduate students on their research teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab — and an appreciation of life in the Bay Area.

“The joke is we like to have people go back East to consider working at Yale in January,” he says. “That takes care of that.”

Berkeley has taken a few crucial steps to make its faculty less vulnerable to the market, before situations ever develop into a full-blown retention case.

Spouse and partner issues are part of that picture.

“Many of our faculty are in dual-career households now — far more than you’d have seen several decades ago,” Broughton observes. “That means life is complicated.”

Under Broughton’s predecessor, Sheldon Zedeck, Berkeley created a campus “concierge” position to work with faculty recruits and those facing retention decisions on issues like making career contacts, understanding the local real estate market or vetting child-care options. A back-up care program for dependents is now available to all ladder-rank faculty.

On the salary side, the Targeted Decoupling Initiative was launched to provide raises for high-achieving faculty whose salaries lag the market in their fields. It will provide $1.5 million for special raises over the next three years, starting in July.

“We aim to be competitive. We also aim to be equitable,” says Broughton. The raises will help smooth out what she calls the inevitable salary differences that result between faculty who receive retention increases and “equally outstanding faculty, who haven’t entertained an outside offer.”

So far this year, Berkeley is nine-for-nine in retention case wins. Ten other cases are working, and the year is still young. Retention cases will never go away, no matter what the economy or the state Legislature does, Broughton says.

“Of course outside institutions approach our faculty. They’re terrific.”