Given the costs associated with hiring and retaining faculty members, it’s helpful to have detailed data on faculty retention, promotions, and separations. The problem is that this data is not readily available at many institutions.
Unlike student retention data, faculty retention data typically consists of institution-level data that doesn’t provide much demographic or discipline-specific data. Institutional research staff at Purdue University have addressed these shortcomings with a dedicated faculty retention database that enables flexible reporting.
Prior to creating a dedicated database, the Office of Human Resources created annual faculty retention reports of assistant professor cohorts at four and eight years and didn’t always include underrepresented minorities. The report was one of the university’s strategic plan metrics.
In addition to the retention report, a separate document detailed why faculty left in a given year. There was also a promotion and tenure table at the university level, detailing the decision made in a year.
“The shortcoming of that system is that it didn’t drill down at all,” says Christopher Maxwell, senior research and planning analyst in Purdue’s Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Effectiveness. “It couldn’t give you College of Engineering results. It couldn’t look at African-American results. It couldn’t look at any kind of college or departmental breakdown. The information was also disparate. It wasn’t connected in any way. … And we couldn’t answer any stakeholders’ questions to any satisfaction.”
Requests for more useful data led to the creation of the database. Maxwell says that requests for faculty retention data have increased in the 12 years he’s been at the university. These requests often come from deans looking for data at the college level. One of the first requests once the new database was in place was a request for data comparing STEM and non-STEM assistant professor retention. The vice provost for faculty affairs asked for a particular breakdown on associate professors because of specific concerns.
“I think we’re largely pointing people to further investigation. And it’s not only retention. We’ve linked it to separation information and promotion and tenure information. So we’re getting some context,” Maxwell says.
Jacquelyn Frost, director of Purdue’s Office of Institutional Research, adds, “I could imagine if there was a pattern over time, for example, in STEM disciplines’ female faculty not being promoted at the same rate as men—not that that has happened—but that would be an example where action could be taken.”
The database goes back to 1991, and a major challenge was creating continuity from different administrative and reporting systems. Maxwell would like the database to include earlier data to enable samples of 150 to 250 people, but “1991 was as far back as I could go with a reasonable amount of effort,” he says.
The goal for this database is to provide leaders with data about faculty retention that is similar to what is currently available in the area of student retention: define a cohort, track it year by year, and assign attributes as variables in regression modeling to see whether those attributes influence their retention.
“I think faculty retention is one of the primary things that every college and university needs to be doing, and if there is any information that can help institutions be more successful in doing that, I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor,” Frost says.