Generation Next


By Ajay Singh, Photos by Pete McArthur

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Tapping the Talent Pool

To attract the best new faculty, Tony Chan, the former dean of physical sciences at UCLA currently on loan to the National Science Foundation as its assistant director of mathematics and physical sciences, recommends planning ahead of the retirement curve and hiring two or three people a year instead of, say, 40 at once.

This is indispensable for attracting top talent because as the "Sputnik generation of professors retires, there's just not that much talent to fill the gap created by their retirement," says Chan. But to attract promising talent, the university must have more endowed chairs, he says, adding: "You need a chair just to begin a conversation."

A concerted effort to improve financial support for recruitment and retention of faculty, as well as top-notch graduate students, is already under way. In 2004, UCLA launched the "Ensuring Academic Excellence Initiative" to tackle mounting competition from cash-rich private universities, which spare no expense to recruit top faculty.

The initiative has a five-year goal to generate $250 million, including $100 million to fund 100 new endowed faculty chairs across campus. (The university's total endowments are currently in the range of $1 billion, a third of what Harvard University, with about $35 billion in endowments, has lately been raising in a single year.)

Still, the faculty that UCLA has been recruiting lately tend to be extraordinarily accomplished. "Ten to 15 years ago, recruiting an assistant professor meant getting someone wet behind the ears, straight out of grad school," says Dominic Thomas, chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies as well as the Department of Italian. "The people we now recruit are the ones who can take on responsibility early in their career, who hit the ground running instead of being nurtured by us."

Thomas himself is a good example of this new generation of scholars. Since he came to UCLA in 2000 from the University of Notre Dame, several universities around the world have tried to poach Thomas, who is in his 40s, with offers of more money. "I know of others on campus to whom this has happened — people working in transnational studies, diaspora studies, post-colonial studies, African-American studies and comparative literature," says Thomas, adding: "These are hot, cutting-edge disciplines very much in demand these days."

Thomas prefers UCLA because of at least three factors that many of his colleagues would identify with.

To begin with, "L.A. is a global city open to transnational issues and that correlates nicely with the global sweep of French studies," he explains. Second, as the world's most culturally diverse city, Los Angeles also allows Thomas to tap into "new ways of thinking about interdisciplinary subjects and issues such as race, gender and immigration," all of which are part of a widely popular and relatively new undergraduate major on global studies that he teaches.

And finally, Thomas is attracted to UCLA's engagement with the Southern California community, which The New York Times Magazine recently lauded when it called UCLA not just the most applied-to university in the country, but also the nation's most economically diverse institution. "We are a privileged university, but we have more people of different economic classes," says Thomas, adding: "I find that more stimulating than, say, Princeton, where you're working with extremely privileged students."

How to compete against the best institutions for world-class faculty minds is an issue that Judy Olian, dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, grapples with on a daily basis.

"We have a couple of barriers working against us," says Olian, who came to UCLA from the Smeal College of Business Administration at Pennsylvania State University in January 2006 — the first woman in 70 years to take the helm of one of the top-ranked international business schools.

First, although Los Angeles is an exciting and livable place, residing on the West side is prohibitively expensive, Olian points out. And second, the explosive growth of business schools in large countries like China and Russia has not only created a general scarcity of faculty, but has jacked up the price of hiring them.

The Australia-born Olian confronts those twin "grand challenges" by telling prospective faculty that not only will they be joining a great university, but also a "community of minds" like no other. During her first six months as dean, Olian helped launch the Center for Finance and Investments, the latest of seven research centers that has helped make the Anderson School one of Business Week's top 20 U.S. business schools.

Since she took the school's hot seat, Olian has successfully hired 14 faculty members (thereby partly making up for a faculty shortage resulting from a hiring freeze caused by the post-2000 economic recession).

In addition, Olian has launched seven to nine searches for faculty and, given the faculty's accelerating rate of retirement, she is expecting to hire an average of five to seven faculty annually in as many years.