9 No. 6
The Greatness Game
Strengthening faculty distinction at Emory
“We have a distinctive institutional culture and history that is what we have to offer in the higher education world, and I don’t want to give that up in order to chase some abstract image of excellence.”
“I think in many ways some of the people who ask why this is this such a big deal are the very ones who are keeping the status quo.”
The End of Work?
Riding the Retirement Wave
Hard Money/Soft Money
The two cultures
President James Wagner’s vision for Emory calls for “a destination university internationally recognized as an inquiry-driven, ethically engaged, and diverse community, whose members work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world through courageous leadership in teaching, research, scholarship, health care, and social action.” I believe President Wagner is doing a fine job in reaching out to the various segments of the Emory community to foster serious dialogue about the issues confronting this university and higher education in general in the years ahead.
One such issue that I was asked to comment on is how we build this “sense of community”—how we engage collegially and collaboratively in teaching and scholarship—when so many of the faculty are required to generate some, most, or all of their salaries and fringes from sources outside the university. This is the “hard or soft money” issue that is creating so much tension among faculty at many research universities, including Emory.
Faculty members in the arts and sciences, business, and law are typically on hard money lines; that is, all or most of their salaries are covered by their school and, in return, they are expected to engage fully in teaching, research, and service throughout their careers, perhaps supplementing their income with grants or awards to cover teaching or scholarly work over the summer. In sharp contrast, many faculty, especially in medicine, public health, and other health science areas, are expected to generate a substantial part of their income through externally funded research grants, or, if they are clinicians, through clinical practice or a combination of practice and research grants. Much or all of these faculty members’ incomes depend on the vagaries of federal or philanthropic funding priorities that often may have nothing to do with the priorities of their home institution.
During the Cold War, federal agencies were mandated by Congress and by presidents of both parties to outperform and outspend the Soviets. This resulted in a tremendous growth of Federal spending for research—for the arts and humanities, but especially for the sciences. Being on soft money had its rewards. A scholar who was successful in getting grants could focus exclusively on research and enjoy all the advantages of being at a university—freedom to select the problems to work on; access to graduate, undergraduate, and post-doctoral students to perform research tasks; library and ancillary facilities; and many other amenities not found in the corporate research sector. Soft money researchers had virtually no teaching or service commitments because their funds were provided externally. They became the
darlings of the academic world because they “generated income” and status for the university as measured by the number of
external dollars brought in. These researchers could often even pay the tuition and stipends of their graduate students directly from their grants. Deans, too, were thrilled with this arrangement—not only were they spared the expense of salaries and fringes, they also received supplemental funding of 30 to 70 percent of
the grants in indirect cost returns from the granting agencies. Institutions raced to build new facilities to attract soft-money researchers, many of whom brought with them multiple
So what happened? First, those grant-supported faculty needed teams of students and post-docs to support their research while
they were out applying for ever more grants—it was a never-ending cycle turning out more and more students as more and more graduate programs were created to capture a larger “market share” of mostly nih and nsf dollars. Over the last decade, with budget deficits and cutbacks, funding levels at many government agencies has dropped to around 10 percent or fewer of applications. Yet pressure on faculty to continue supporting themselves remains relentless, and has even increased as university administrations find themselves with all those big buildings to maintain through what they hoped would be indirect cost recovery.
Today, the system that supports some faculty with hard money while many of their colleagues depend on soft money creates a two-tiered structure inimical to Emory’s vision statement. It
creates two levels of “community” or citizenship, it limits “courageous leadership” in research and scholarship, and it inhibits the opportunities for collaboration and engagement mandated by the Vision Statement.
Soft-money faculty often must spend almost all their time writing grant proposals. Almost no one now gets funding the first or even second time around. Each time a grant is turned down, it takes about nine months to a year to go through the same review process again. Faculty engaged in this cycle have little time for teaching or mentoring. In fact, government effort-reporting requirements prevent researchers from engaging in such activities unless they take a reduction in time from the grant support and make up the difference from university funds. Government regulations prohibit even writing a grant proposal using grant funds because such time is not being spent on the research per se. In many research institutions even tenured faculty who lose their grant support may soon find themselves out on the street, because the tenure applies not to the salary but to the position. Soft-money faculty can’t commit time to building the university “community” because that’s not what they’re paid to do. Where should their loyalties lie? With the federal agency that pays their salaries, or with a university that may provide some space (competitively based on how many grant dollars they generate) but neither means nor motive for collegial interaction with peers or students?
As members of an advisory council to one of the National Institutes of Health, my colleagues and I often discuss the concern that so many biomedical scientists have to follow the money rather than their passions and interests, or even the logic of their research trajectory. Dependence on scarce federal money increases anxiety while systematically reducing creativity as investigators apply for “safe projects.” Having served on study sections, I have observed that these peer review groups have become very timid about supporting novel or controversial research. How, when a good number of its researchers owe their primary allegiance to this system, can Emory become even “an inquiry-driven . . . community,” much less one “whose members work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world through courageous leadership in teaching, research, scholarship, health care, and social action?” The issues for the soft-money faculty themselves are clear, but what does it mean to the community to have a high proportion of soft-money faculty? What does it mean to have a large population of researchers who are not connected to the intellectual life of the community?
A “courageous solution”
I believe there is a “courageous solution” to this issue. Emory is in a position to challenge the status quo. Given its excellent endowment, the loyal support of its alumni, and its philanthropic friends, Emory can change things for the better—but not with words alone. If Emory is really committed to making itself a destination university where faculty feel part of a greater community of teaching and scholarship, it will cost something—maybe a lot of something. With so many potentially outstanding faculty on soft money, it is well within Emory’s power to take advantage of their presence by paying them to teach and become more engaged in university life.
If universities were to acknowledge that the circumstances that brought about the soft money bonanza no longer prevail, and reassume their responsibility to provide more money for salaries, grants could be substantially smaller, providing the funding agencies more capital to spread around. This idea is not far-fetched. It happens in Canada and most of the European Union. Recently Daniel Greenberg, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 2, 2007), pointed out that in 2004 Harvard (with a $25.4 billion endowment) and Yale (with $15.2 billion) spent virtually none (Harvard $0.00, Yale $26 million) of their own money on research and development. Maybe these two institutions are so successful in attracting and retaining faculty with major grants that they don’t need to worry about the difficult times facing everyone else. But what is Emory doing in this regard? As Greenberg writes, “Even while deploring the declines in federal research spending, major universities demonstrate no willingness to make up even some of the difference.”
It comes down to whether Emory will continue to devote so much of its spending to buildings to house soft-money faculty who will move elsewhere as soon as they get a better, more stable deal, or begin to invest seriously in its teaching and research mission. Well-endowed universities like Emory are morally obligated to support, materially and not just rhetorically, the scholarly mission(s) they claim as essential to their identity.