Faculty Turnover: A Cause for Concern?
story | Rachel Hau, Contributing Reporter
photo | Rachel Hau
Assistant Professor of Science (Chemistry) Stanislav Presolski returned to our interview with a plate piled high with food. He addressed my startled expression, telling me it was the only day in the week he had more than ten minutes to have lunch — he is “overloading”, teaching three courses this semester. Dean of Faculty Professor Joanne Roberts sipped from a can of Coke during our interview to perk herself up before rushing to her next meeting. We often overlook the difficulties our faculty face in committing to our start-up institution, Yale-NUS College. Faculty juggle research, teaching and other college commitments. This intense workload and the need to adjust to life in Singapore, especially for international faculty, might in turn be linked to faculty turnover, which causes problems like insufficient staffing and uncertainty for some majors.
Associate Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) Andrew Bailey estimated that faculty turnover at Yale-NUS is “something like 6% per year — higher than NUS, Amherst, Pomona, or Yale, I’d wager”. Despite the confidence of administrators like Ms. Roberts, who said that Yale-NUS is “a dynamic place that can handle change”, some students have expressed concern about faculty turnover. Ng Qi Siang ‘19 said, “leaving so hastily makes students concerned that the faculty have so little confidence in either the project or students that they are escaping”.
While Ng noted that the History faculty lineup has been stable so far, other majors have seen more discontinuity. According to Saza Faradilla ’18, the Anthropology major has had a different head of study every year. While she was unsure if this was directly due to high turnover, she expressed that this lack of continuity resulted in confusion.
“Some of us in the Anthropology major are finding difficulty using our previous research for our current capstone, as we did not know it needed to go through the Research and Ethics Board. If there was one Head of Studies, they might know and tell us earlier.”
Changes in leadership have reduced teaching staff strength in the Division of Science as well. While chemistry major Jung Min Eun ‘19 said there has not been turnover among junior faculty, the major has lost senior (teaching) faculty due to promotions and unforeseen circumstances. “In the physical sciences, the biggest challenge has been the number of faculty. We just don’t have enough people,” Mr. Presolski said.
Although Ms. Roberts has said that recruiting faculty for the Division of Science is one of Yale-NUS’ priorities for hiring this year, there may be some challenges in attracting senior faculty due to difficulties they might face in conducting experiments. Some of these difficulties Mr. Presolski raised are the lack of research labs for science faculty on campus, the lack of clarity on whether scientists can use teaching labs for their research, and logistical issues in obtaining chemicals.
According to Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong, about five to seven faculty members have left annually in the last three years. He said that although it is sad to to see faculty leave, it is not unexpected as Yale-NUS hires faculty who are marketable and sought after by top universities.
This loss was arguably felt more in the first three years, when faculty size was smaller, he said. In particular, the departure of academic couples meant a “double whammy” as when one decides to leave the other one follows, he said.
However, Mr. Tan added that faculty turnover is a regular feature of colleges and that “we are nowhere near the percentage that is causing us to panic”.
Compared to older and more stable institutions, Yale-NUS’ rate of faculty turnover may seem alarming, Mr. Bailey said. However, he added that such comparisons are misleading as Yale-NUS is a start-up.
Likewise, Ms. Roberts said, “I think our turnover rate has decreased. However because of our location [in relation to where most of the professors are from], in the long term it will probably be slightly higher than at a liberal arts college in the States.”
Reasons for Faculty Turnover
According to Mr. Tan, faculty turnover is due to a mix of professional and personal reasons.
For instance, some faculty might leave because their expectations do not align with those of Yale-NUS. Some faculty came thinking that Yale-NUS was what they wanted but afterwards they might have found they prefer a place with more research and less teaching, Mr. Tan said.
Faculty may also leave because of tenure. Tenure, “the prize that every academic wants”, is a key concern for junior faculty, Mr. Tan said. It is awarded based on factors like student and peer evaluations, faculty writing about their own teaching, and quality of work produced.
While Ms. Roberts said that “we never hire anyone whose capacity we don’t have a lot of faith in”, she acknowledged that there is “inevitably uncertainty for faculty […] it’s impossible to make tenure criteria perfectly transparent”. According to the Yale-NUS Faculty Handbook, tenure-track faculty typically undergo review for promotion to tenure during their sixth year of teaching. Tenure-track faculty may choose to leave for other institutions before the six-year mark if they feel that they stand a better chance at tenure elsewhere.
Personal concerns such as family pressures are also an important consideration for faculty. Faculty may have to consider their children’s schooling and partners’ career prospects in Singapore, and for some, ageing parents at home. This is especially so for international faculty, whose decision to stay in the long term is often influenced by compromises their family members have to make, Mr. Tan said.
Personal preferences and the ability to assimilate into Singaporean society also play large roles in influencing decisions to stay. Mr. Bailey said, “International faculty can choose whether to build a life in Singapore.” According to Mr. Bailey, faculty who make little effort to make local friends and understand Singaporean culture are “choosing to be expats rather than immigrants. In doing this, we are often, I suspect, setting ourselves up for dissatisfaction and eventual departure. This is more about culture than institutional policy.”
Despite its problems, faculty turnover also can bring about increased vibrancy and rejuvenation for Yale-NUS, Ms. Roberts said. She said that Yale-NUS places a large emphasis on attracting and developing good faculty members. “[We] make sure that we hire the best people we can, that we give them as many opportunities to grow and develop while they’re here, and treat them fairly as they progress through the ranks”, she said.
Furthermore, Mr. Tan said “as [Yale-NUS gets] more established, we are also getting people who are coming to us [and] giving up their tenure elsewhere”.
All this being said, some faculty have chosen to stay because of the strong relationships and aspirations they have built with Yale-NUS students. Mr. Presolski spoke of how he and some of his colleagues make decisions based on how they can best serve the students.
“For me, teaching is serving the students and that is a proxy for serving the world,” he said.
Mr. Bailey, who is in his sixth year on the job, also said, “It’s the students — and their capacity to surprise and delight — who’ve kept me here so far. As long as Admissions keeps on recruiting classes like these, I will happily serve.”