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COACHE Collaborates with the University of California to Reinvent Faculty Exit Surveys

This first-of-its-kind shared survey to show why faculty leave and at what costs.

The University of California’s Office of the President has joined with the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), a research-practice partnership based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to launch a faculty exit survey that is the first of its kind.

Given the academy’s struggles to diversify the professoriate and regular media coverage of high-profile, high-cost faculty exits, COACHE and UC recognized that university leaders need better diagnostic tools to understand the numbers, causes, and costs of faculty departures — and how those figures compare to colleges’ competitors in the market.

After several years in development by Harvard researchers and critical input from a UC advisory group and scholars elsewhere, the survey is being sent to faculty who resigned or were retained last year at six UC campuses. COACHE will expand its study to include more universities later this year.

As it launched the exit survey, COACHE also shared findings on the departure intentions of college faculty from its Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, now celebrating its decennial. COACHE found that, in the past five years, one in four full-time, tenure-stream faculty who participated in the survey “actively sought” employment elsewhere and one in seven received an outside job offer. Nearly one in four pre-tenure faculty reported plans to leave their institutions in the next five years, even if they earned tenure, while one in three faculty with tenure said they intended to leave.

“Such win/loss and attrition rate data are elementary to admissions and development officers,” said COACHE Director and Principal Investigator Kiernan Mathews. “They know precisely where their students and donors came from, where they went, and why. But the answers for faculty are more elusive.”

COACHE researchers found that no two universities were asking the same questions and pooling their data. So, UC and COACHE together allocated resources to research, draft, and refine an instrument that could be shared across the academy. They designed their study as a collaborative effort to draw deeper insights, faster, by overcoming the “small sample” problems endemic to exit surveys.

“Most people on campus believe that faculty leave because of money, or other factors out of the institution’s control,” explained Susan Carlson, vice provost for academic personnel and programs at the University of California. “However, research shows that the reasons are more varied and, in many cases, very much preventable.”

Carlson continued, “If even a single professor’s departure is, instead, a retention, then our efforts with COACHE will have paid off.” However, she said the imperative to understand faculty exits went beyond the issue of lost investment, saying the problem is also a matter of equity. “Do some groups leave for reasons that are different from those of other groups?” she asked. “Might knowing the answer help us address the concerns of those not in the majority?”

As more campuses participate, resignation patterns will emerge with respect to minority status and disciplinary cultures. The results will reveal not just areas for improvement, but also exemplary practices that can help UC campuses in their goals of diversifying the faculty.

Mathews said the results could be used to improve department chair training, to educate deans about “home field advantage” in preemptive retention actions and counteroffers, and to create compelling cases to donors and legislators in the name of retaining the most talented and diverse academic workforce.

“Universities have lots of data, but what they need is more meaning,” Mathews explained, “and greater meaning comes from better collaboration.” He added that COACHE surveys have always been designed to produce data that are of immediate use to academic policymakers, not simply interesting to researchers.

When the current pilot concludes in June, COACHE and UC will host an invitation-only roundtable to share the results and invite critical feedback from college leaders around the country. COACHE will then deploy the Faculty Retention and Exit Survey annually at colleges and universities willing to fund the research. COACHE will continue to administer its Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey.

Interested colleges and universities are invited to contact COACHE to signal their interest in participating in the Fall 2016 cohorts of the exit and job satisfaction surveys. More information is available on COACHE’s website: coache.gse.harvard.edu.