Reflections on my discussions with new faculty

This issue of Collectively Speaking is a memo composed by Doug Chivers, USFA Chair and Rawson Professor of Biology, to a number of senior U of S administrators including the President, the Provost and Vice-President Academic, the Vice-President Research, the Vice-Provost, Faculty Relations, the Acting Vice-President Finance and Resources and the Associate Vice-President Human Resources. The text has been lightly edited for wider dissemination.

As Chair of the USFA, each year I invite all of the new members to join me and a few other members of the USFA Executive and staff for lunch. This is a great opportunity for me to start to get to know them and hear about their experience at the University. The lunches are typically small groups of about 5 to 6 new faculty, so that I get to hear firsthand concerns raised by members about their time at the U of S. I usually host 6 such events each year, hence I have talked with upwards of about 150 individuals over the past five years. At the end of my series of lunches each year, I often reflect on what transpired, besides the obvious fact that I ate too much. Over the years, I have shared the concerns I hear with some members of the Senior Administration. I do this because I feel it is important for you to know what our newest faculty think is constraining their success at the University of Saskatchewan. Additionally, I think some of the concerns that come up in this setting may not otherwise reach you. As I am a researcher first and foremost, I am particularly in tune with what constrains their success as researchers.

Just this week I concluded my lunches for the year. Here are a few thoughts for you.

1) A long standing issue I have heard from many in the sciences is the excessive periods of time it takes for the University to build research labs. I have chatted with senior administrators over the years, but I am not certain that everyone in senior administration is aware of the magnitude of this effect. In many disciplines when we hire a new faculty member, we expect them to immediately apply for a tri-council grant. This means they have 5 years or less to show NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC and the world what they can do with it. If the lab they are to work in is not ready (in some cases for more than a year), then they must compete with people elsewhere who have had a full five years in the lab. This puts our faculty on an uneven playing field. It is setting them up to fail. Even if they get their grant renewed, it will likely be of lower value, reducing their ability produce papers and to hire students, hence compromising their success at obtaining future grants. We can avoid this vicious circle, if the commitment and leadership is there. Many of your newest faculty are being told by colleagues and Department Heads not to apply for grants in their first year or two to try to offset this problem. This is most unfortunate.

Yesterday I had lunch with one of your newly recruited researcher stars, and I do mean stars. He and the graduate students he brought with him had just spent several hours cleaning junk out an old research lab in the hope that it could speed FMD along in the building of his new lab. Right now, he and his graduate students are simply waiting to get into the lab, which will likely take many months. In the mean time, his ability to maintain his NSERC and CIHR grant is diminishing, and with it, the overall research capability of our university.

2) A related issue is our minimal investment in start-up packages for new faculty. When we hire a new professor, we choose how much to invest in their success. Simple logic and economics says that, in general, if you invest very little, then you will likely get little in return. If we invest at the beginning of someone’s career, then we will put them at the top of the hill instead of the bottom. Their ability to publish, to attract outstanding students and to attract research money is often dependent on early investment. If our ability to attract the best people is limited by poor start-up packages, then this issue is even more fundamental to our success as a research university.

One thing that has become evident over the past decade is that we now rely heavily on CFI to provide research infrastructure for new faculty. Sad to say, but this program is in many ways the U of S start-up package. However, the time it takes to get the grant written and approved and have the equipment in place is measured in years. Minimal productivity in the first years can cripple someone’s research career. I have heard many people express concerns about the way that CFI is administered here. It is clear that writing the grant is the easy part. Trying to deal with the administration of the grant through Research Services and FMD is described by most as one of the worst experiences of their career. Try to invite some of them for lunch one day and ask what they think of the way CFI is being administered at the U of S. Many of them have great ideas on how to fix the problems they have encountered.

Let me be very clear that I have no issues with any individuals at either FMD or Research Services or HR, nor do I believe there are bad intentions on the part of any employee there. They are following institutional policy.

3) Another theme that I commonly hear about is the minimal amount of support for graduate student scholarships and fellowships. I would say that many of our newest faculty do not fully appreciate this fact when they are hired. However, this is something that I frequently hear about from the more senior among our new faculty. As Chair of the USFA, and as the former Chair of the Biology Graduate Studies Committee for 7 years, I have continually brought this to the attention of Senior Administration. I will put it bluntly: this is the single most important impediment to the University of Saskatchewan becoming a research intensive university. Until the senior administration hears that message and actually does something substantial about it, then it is hard for even your best researchers to believe that you are serious about having a research intensive university. We recently joined the U15. We compete with the big universities. Ontario, Quebec and Alberta all have significant provincial graduate funding programs. Others have large endowments. We do not. For a university that is serious about research, this level of support is quite simply pathetic. I spent a long time trying to come up with the proper descriptor. Disappointing, ridiculous, embarrassing, wholly inadequate are all equally accurate, but pathetic has a nice ring to it. I will say this again, lack of graduate student funding is the single most important impediment to the University of Saskatchewan becoming a research intensive university. The new faculty, as well as those of us who have been around for a while, would really like you to hear that message.

4) For many years I have heard faculty talk about how Research Services is an impediment to conducting research at the U of S. This is an unfortunate reputation for a unit with a mandate to facilitate research. Among other issues, people often talk about unreasonable deadlines and review of their grants. I must admit that when a funding opportunity arises at the last minute, I have on occasion cut Research Services out of the loop. I always reasoned that it is better to get the grant and deal with the inevitable apology to Research Services than to not get the grant because they could not sign off in time. The hassle of setting up accounts for small sums of money has also meant that my funding partners pay my graduate students directly instead of directing the money through the university. This decision has largely been driven by my collaborators, who want nothing to do with the hassle of dealing with Research Services. One of my collaborators has directed several grants through my lab and always jokes that the hardest part of working with me is to get the University to accept his money. I understand that by directing the money directly to the students, it makes it look like the U of S is attracting fewer dollars. This is not great for a university that likes to count inputs, but the reality is it makes things easier for me and my research collaborators.

Research Services has not been a large impediment for me, perhaps because I have learned to navigate around them. I cannot say that the same is true for several of the new faculty that I had lunch with this year. Despite the greatest of intentions, as far as I can tell, the internal review process for CIHR grants is an absolute disaster. You have a new professor that did not submit a grant because of the time lines imposed by Research Services. You have another who is running a CIHR grant through another university that has reasonable deadlines and will accommodate researchers. You have yet another who feels totally betrayed that his grant was sent out, without his permission, to an external consultant, who is in a major conflict of interest with him. He feels he is open to a lawsuit from his collaborators because of this breach. I am totally disheartened to see that those individuals that show the great interest in building the research engine of this university are encountering such roadblocks.

5) We are in a global market for attracting new faculty. Consequently, it should not be a surprise to anyone that this means we hire people who are not Canadians or Permanent Residents. Despite raising this issue in the past, I fail to understand why our new faculty cannot get any advice from Human Resources about how to navigate through Canadian immigration. New faculty are being told that HR cannot help them in any way whatsoever. Surely, we have something useful to tell our new faculty about this. We should not underestimate how important this can be in recruitment and retention of new faculty. When I accepted by first tenure-track position, I had three competing job offers from research universities in the US. When I asked about US immigration law, one university told me that it was up to me to figure that out, one gave me practical advice and the contact information of a local immigration lawyer, the last told me they would hire me a lawyer and take full responsibility for ensuring my successful immigration. Guess where I accepted a job?

6) As a final word to that Dean who told one of our colleagues that research is overemphasized and they did not need to worry about doing it, shame on you. You do not deserve to be a Dean at this university.

I am fully aware that the issues I raise require substantial investment to correct. However, I have listened to many talks by our senior administration over the years who talk of making choices. I fully agree with this sentiment. However, it seems to me we have made many choices. It is our choice that Facilities Management does not prioritize building new labs for new faculty. It is our choice to try to balance College budgets by minimally investing in new faculty start-up packages. It is our choice to stick our head in the sand and believe that we can be research intensive when our graduate scholarship budget is wholly inadequate. Managing the university budget and complement of staff is not in my purview as USFA Chair, but if I were cynical, I would ask: why do we continually hire faculty under conditions that seem to set them, and our institution, up for failure? If I was asking these sorts of questions, I may also ask: why almost all of our recent growth and investment appears to be in administration? Despite the best of intentions, we have evidence that some administrative units are becoming so big and clumsy that they trip over themselves even when they are trying to help. I would ask why we are not investing in our new faculty. I truly believe that the success of any university, particularly a research university, stems from the individual success of each individual member of the faculty.

I want our new faculty to be successful. I want them to be successful because of the great opportunities the U of S provides them, not in spite of the obstacles that are placed in front of them. I genuinely believe that all of you share this desire and so I hope that my letter gives you something to think about. It was meant to provide you with a glimpse of what the new faculty at our institution are thinking and what they feel constrains their success. I have offered these comments in the belief that we will all benefit if these kinds of concerns can be addressed. I have chosen to repeat the concerns I have heard back to you almost verbatim, and without spin, in the belief that all of us are experienced enough to hear such concerns without flinching. As always, I would be happy to talk more about any of these issues with you, but I also hope that you contact some of our newest colleagues to talk about their experiences.

Next week my annual lunches with Department Heads start.  I am always amazed to hear what they have to say.