James Vernon: Leveling the playing field

James Vernon is British, and his field is the history of modern Britain and its empire. In 2011, after 11 years at Berkeley, London came calling and he was offered a university position as leader of a large group of British historians with the most important archives close at hand. The job came with a generous housing stipend. And there was an added incentive: public universities in the UK have been taking it on the chin, and Vernon wanted to go over and help “defend what was left.”

Only an institution in the UK could have proved a serious temptation. But he’s still here.

James Vernon

James Vernon

Some of his decision ended up being personal, he says. His family resisted the move. His wife had just started a successful business, and his children argued against changing school systems.

And while it appealed to Vernon to go back and defend public universities back home, “it was apparent when I was there that the game was pretty much up. The level of managerial intervention and commercial imperatives even in arts and humanities just beggared belief.

“I think that ironically I felt there was more to stay and defend here than in the UK.”

There was also his retention package. It provided a salary increase, housing assistance and research funds that can be used at his discretion— a war chest, he calls it.  For Vernon, that levels the playing field. “It’s good and equitable,” he says.

He didn’t go looking for a job, he says; it came looking for him — as is true for “a ridiculous number” of other faculty. And it came from the only institution that could have provided the kinds of research opportunities attractive to him as a British history scholar, he says. “I think everybody knows I’m in the only place I’d want to be in the U.S.”

A few months after making his decision, Vernon says he still felt “slightly embarrassed because I know I have colleagues who have done longer service, are just as valuable as scholars and teachers, but haven’t been prepared to consider moving.” In fact, he wonders whether Berkeley’s readiness to respond competitively in retention cases may have some unintended consequences, creating a “star” system that opens up large salary gaps between equally accomplished scholars. To continue moving in this direction would, he worries, result in an “inefficient and unjust way of handling faculty compensation.”  

One way in which Berkeley is addressing these issues is what it calls the targeted decoupling initiative, a pool of $1.5 million to raise the salaries of about 200 professors between now and 2015. The beneficiaries of this program are high-achieving faculty members who may not have been able to consider moving and whose scaled-based salaries have lagged behind those of more mobile colleagues.