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Generation Next

By Ajay Singh, Photos by Pete McArthur

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Baby Boomer UCLA faculty are retiring by the hundreds and a new generation of scholars will take their place. Who are they, where will they come from, and what will it take to keep them here? Those questions are being tackled with urgency across the campus. At stake is UCLA's ability to remain one of the world's great public universities.

In science and engineering, a "grand challenge" refers to any complex and wide-ranging problem that can be solved through cutting-edge techniques and resources. Now UCLA and other universities across the country face their own grand challenge, and it's a daunting one: replacing a huge wave of retiring Baby Boomer professors.

A slew of scholars in American universities was hired in the 1960s and 1970s to teach the Boomer generation. Now those professors are in their 60s and 70s. In 1989-'90, when researchers at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute began conducting triennial surveys of faculty ages nationwide, one-quarter of all faculty on U.S. campuses were 55 years or older. By 2004-'05, 37 percent were seniors. By contrast, only 31 percent of U.S. faculty were less than 44 years old in 2004-'05, compared with 41 percent in 1989-'90.

Although federal legislation in 1994 outlawed mandatory retirement at age 70, many, if not most, of these professors are likely to opt out of full-time teaching. As of last March, nearly 30 percent of UCLA faculty were more than 60 years old, and 378 have retired in the past decade. In the next five years, another 200 to 300 faculty members are likely to retire.

The search for a new generation of campus leaders is no academic exercise. At stake is UCLA's ability to stay at the top of the list of the world's great institutions.

Last November, in his first address to the Academic Senate's legislative assembly since he took UCLA's helm in August 2007, Chancellor Gene Block made it clear that in the coming year the campus leadership will develop a "smart" academic plan to guide the university's course over the next two decades. Block emphasized that the university's plan would begin with a mission statement leading to "where we want to go and what's necessary to get there."

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.

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.

For example, an initial step toward disciplinary groupings was taken last October when a team of Nobel laureates engaged in a discussion with deans, faculty, scientists and researchers. The team's recommendations are expected in the winter.

There is wide agreement on campus that Chancellor Block's strong background in science and research makes him well-suited to understand what it means for a premier university to maintain its competitive edge by successfully confronting its grand challenges at a time when state funding for the university is just 15 percent of its total budget.

To promote high-impact collaborative research at a time when university budgets everywhere are so strained, funding itself is increasingly being focused on interdisciplinary efforts. Prime examples of this trend are the California NanoSystems Institute and the new Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, which recently attracted sought-after faculty from such renowned institutions as Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins.

There are several other examples of integrated fund-raising on the Westwood campus as well, including the effort to raise $65 million for a new Life Sciences building, in which staff from both the Geffen School of Medicine and the College of Letters and Science are working together to identify suitable philanthropic sources.

And in November, a $30-million endowment from the Herb Alpert Foundation supported the creation of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, bringing together three different departments: music, musicology and ethnomusicology. [See related story, page 10.] That gift will help students to enhance their academic study of music with a variety of courses in related fields such as the music business, music in the public sector, and music and health.

"Our professional responsibility to interdisciplinarity across the campus and the nation requires that we bring in professionals who are as nimble, intellectually curious and sophisticated as the scholarship itself," says Rhea Turteltaub, interim vice chancellor of external affairs. "Most schools are struggling with how to adapt to this kind of scholarship."

Whether the issue is modernizing health care, stem cell research, understanding climate change or mapping the human genome, "we do have the capacity and components to meet multidisciplinary challenges," adds Janette Miller, assistant vice chancellor of strategic planning for research.

One example of how this grand challenge is being addressed on campus is the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, a state-of-the-art multi-million-dollar medical facility located almost exactly midway between the engineering school and the new medical center.

The laboratory houses approximately 100 employees who use their expertise in neurology, genetics, physics, computation and statistics to explore one of the great and least-understood frontiers of science: the human brain.

The lab's founding director, Arthur Toga, is a spry man with graying hair who played a key role in designing and fund-raising for the multidisciplinary facility. Toga feels that multidisciplinary efforts on campus lack what he calls "a strong growth path." Individual departments tend to be overprotective of their turf, he explains, making it difficult for faculty to get joint appointments, which adversely affects hiring and retention.

"Our research funding is very healthy, but the research infrastructure that supports our ability to get that money is weak," explains Vice Chancellor for Research Roberto Peccei, pointing out that in 2006-'07, the university raised a record $930 million in research funding. "We need an encompassing strategic plan on how to do interdisciplinary research, particularly in the areas we are good at."

So what's in store for Generation Next, Bruin style? Hard to tell, since campus leadership is grappling with the issue on so many fronts, and the jury's still out on what ideas or policies will work best.

But here's what we do know: The drive to expand interdisciplinary initiatives while finding the funds to pay for it will intensify. The recruitment battle, defined in part by the graying of faculty, will be fierce. And the face of Bruin faculty will change.

But UCLA's commitment to excellence will remain.