Generation Next


By Ajay Singh, Photos by Pete McArthur

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Top Prospects' Concerns

While there's no doubt that Los Angeles attracts people who are comfortable in big metropolitan centers, the downside to living in L.A. is that it's so costly. In fact, expensive housing is perhaps the greatest obstacle to hiring and, in some cases, retaining new talent, especially given that UCLA's faculty salaries lag about 10 percent behind those of competing universities.

"I don't think anyone in the country is as affected by housing as we are," says Patricia O'Brien, former executive dean of UCLA's College of Letters and Science. "The College hires about 40 to 50 faculty every year, and if it doesn't get the people it wants, it doesn't hire."

It's virtually impossible to buy a house for anything less than $1 million near campus — and despite generous housing allowances, "faculty get sticker shock," says O'Brien, adding that Westwood's land prices are so prohibitive for faculty that "we may well choose to fund-raise with donors specifically for housing."

The problem is much worse when it comes to hiring spousal faculty who want to put their children in limited child-care facilities on campus.

One way to tackle the problem of retention and housing would be to hire faculty through so-called "target of opportunity for excellence" (TOE) appointments, an "opportunist" mechanism for recruiting outstanding scholars that is being used with considerable success by several other UC campuses. Among other things, TOE allows the hiring of key spousal faculty; that is, couples who come as packages and are more likely to work at UCLA for longer periods than couples employed on different campuses.

One example of spousal recruitment on campus is the 2007 hiring of Anthropology Professor Akhil Gupta and Purnima Mankekar, associate professor of Asian-American studies. Both were anthropologists on the faculty of Stanford University who chose to come to UCLA's Center for India and South Asia.

The reason, says Gupta, is that whereas at Stanford, funding for the humanities lags woefully behind that for the sciences and engineering, the humanities at UCLA are thriving. (Just one example: The number of students enrolled in elementary modern Chinese grew 50 percent between Fall 2004 and Fall 2006.)

There's more work to be done, of course. "As the number of unfilled permanent faculty positions gets smaller, we have less resources to hire temporary faculty and lecturers," says Humanities Dean Tim Stowell. "This is a broader challenge that affects everyone — we get more bang for the buck with respect to teaching, but we're getting less research out of that. It's a dilemma for any research university to balance those."

In an era of heightened interdisciplinary work, the humanities are poised to play a key role. UCLA has made a $3.7-million investment over five years — a $2.5-million grant from the Mellon Foundation supplemented by an additional contribution of $1.2 million from the College — to promote research in new and innovative areas, to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration, and also provide bridge funding for new faculty hires.

"When we talk about research, we talk about research with an impact because we're so porous to the outside world," says the Anderson School's Olian. What it all boils down to, she adds, is doing "lead-thinking versus lag-thinking."

All Together Now

Every challenge offers opportunity, and with the need to recruit academic talent comes the chance to restructure the research and teaching enterprise itself.

"There is a macro trend to which UCLA is not immune," explains Owen Witte, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, one of the leading interdisciplinary organizations on campus. "Interdisciplinary science not based on traditional departmental structures is the most important new wave of science as well as science funding."

What this means, adds Witte, is that the university will have to make some difficult decisions at the highest level about where to utilize its resources in selective areas, instead of trying to excel at everything.

Cross-disciplinary cooperation has long been UCLA's hallmark. Consider just two examples: Eric Hoek M.S. '96, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, uses nanotechnology to desalinate sea water for human consumption. And Economics Professor Duncan Thomas is part of an ambitious quest to probe the relationship between people's health and their social, biological and behavioral circumstances.

Part of the faculty discussion currently under way at the university involves the creation of interdisciplinary groups of scientists around cutting-edge science questions, rather than traditional teaching disciplines. For example, various ideas have been discussed about how to facilitate faculty interaction in the biological and medical sciences, which might involve the Geffen School of Medicine, the College, engineering and elsewhere.

Such changes, if they happen, are far off. But they are not the university's only response to preparing for the future.