What makes you stay: Survey evaluates faculty experience at WCU
Every three years, Western Carolina University gets a report card.
It does not prescribe the university an A, B, C or even F, but the report does tell WCU what it does right and where it needs to improve. Then, it instructs the university to do better.
“It’s not ‘this is your grade’ and you’re done,” said Mark Lord, WCU’s interim associate provost. “It’s really supposed to be a call to action.”
The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, or COACHE, survey completed by Harvard University on a triennial basis asks faculty members about leadership at the school, collegiality, quality of life, research and teaching, among other topics. The university is then given the results, showing how faculty ranked it in each area and how it compared to other institutions.
The idea behind the in-depth and lengthy survey is that a university’s success is dependent on the happiness of its faculty. The better they like their job, the more invested they are in its quality. And the more faculty that care about the quality of the institution, the better the university will be.
Earlier this academic year, WCU received the results of its most recent COACHE survey, which was conducted 2011. The report listed the university’s strengths (tenure and promotion, recognition among peers and the department, collaboration, and departmental collegiality and leadership) and its weaknesses (research support, family policies and benefits).
For the most part, those did not come as a surprise to WCU leaders — both the strengths and weaknesses were things administrators had heard faculty say time and time again.
“In general, the overall highs and lows were consistent with what we might have expected,” Lord said, adding that the only real surprise of the survey was its high marks in the tenure category.
Tenure is a hot button issue on most college campuses. Faculty members complain that the process is unclear or unfair or that they don’t have a decent chance to move up.
But WCU’s departments scrapped their tenure policies a few years ago and started again. On the 2011 COACHE survey, faculty members indicated that university policies related to tenure were clear and consistent in regards to how and when a professor could expect to achieve tenure.
While university administrators are happy to see improvement in tenure rankings, their focus is more drawn toward areas where WCU scored poorly and what choices could turn them around.
“Where can this inform decision making?” Lord said.
Quality of life ranks low for WCU faculty
Before accepting any job, people evaluate two things: the quality of their work life and the quality of life outside the office. You could work at the best job possible, but if you don’t like where you live or otherwise struggle, it can drag down your job happiness levels.
Access to childcare, the ease with which a spouse can find work, salaries and health benefits for family members all affect an employee’s quality of life outside a university. According to COACHE, WCU faculty awarded the university low scores in general quality of life areas. That doesn’t mean that faculty don’t enjoy living in Western North Carolina, but it does show that cost of living and access to services could be a reason why faculty leave or prospective employees chose not to move there.
Faculty settling in Jackson County may have trouble finding an affordable house, for example. Cullowhee is known to have a housing shortage, and what housing is available may be too expensive.
“A lot of people, when they move to the region, have difficulty finding housing in their price range,” Lord said.
If you can’t find a home in the area, then you can’t work there. Some WCU faculty have found luck in Haywood County, which also puts them closer to Asheville — a larger city where their spouse can find work if need be.
However, the larger problem for some faculty is childcare. WCU has a Headstart program, but it is mostly for students with children, and faculty don’t typically meet the minimum standards for entry. For the most part, daycares in Jackson County are expensive, too far out of the way or don’t provide what the parent is looking for.
“There are just not a lot of options,” said Lori Caudle, assistant professor in the birth-kindergarten program.
Caudle had a 3-year-old son when she accepted a position at WCU a couple years ago. She had wanted to put him in the Headstart, but it didn’t work out, and many of the other options were just too costly on a professor’s salary. Although she was eventually able to find a suitable daycare in Haywood County, where she lives, Caudle said lack of childcare choices could be a deterrent for incoming employees.
“It’s definitely a problem, and it scares some new faculty away I think,” Caudle said.
But even before the COACHE survey results came out this year, WCU leaders heard employees’ complaints about childcare. In 2011, a task force charged with researching possible solutions to employee’s childcare conundrum began meeting regularly.
Jill Ingram, who works in WCU’s public relations department, chaired the task force. As a mother, Ingram faced similar problems to Caudle in terms of finding a quality and affordable program.
“There is agreement across the board that there is a lack of affordable infant care,” Ingram said. “I don’t think there is any question of the need.”
The university is currently looking into an Appalachian State-run daycare as a possible model for its own infant through preschool program. However, no official decisions have been made as to whether WCU will start a childcare program anytime soon.
Show me the money, says faculty
With basic services and housing being more costly in rural Cullowhee, WCU must ensure its salaries are consistent with the cost of living and are also competitive when compared to other institutions. For four years, WCU did not increase salaries, whereas larger schools with bigger donor pools could attract outside money to help cover things like faculty pay raises. This school year, faculty received a 1.5 percent raise.
WCU administrators recognize the lack of raises as a problem — one that could send faculty elsewhere.
“Salaries have been stagnant. They have been stagnant for years,” Lord said. “It might reflect in quality of life.”
WCU Chancellor David Belcher said just that in his inauguration speech last spring. The university must make salary increases a priority or face losing out on quality faculty members. In the COACHE survey, 42 percent of respondents said that compensation was the worst aspect of working at WCU.
Caudle said she does believe that the chancellor is taking a real look at compensation, and despite what the survey says, for her the choice to stay isn’t about money.
“I think I could go elsewhere and make more. I don’t think that I would get the quality of life that I have here,” said Caudle, who came from Tennessee.
In fact, respondents in the COACHE survey listed geographic location and quality of colleagues as the top two best aspects of their jobs, respectively.
Although Cullowhee’s rural surrounding deters some students and professors, it’s exactly what draws others in and what they like the most. Lord is a geological sciences professor, in addition to interim assistant provost, so Western North Carolina is a great place to teach and research.
“There are a lot of people who absolutely love it here,” Lord said. “We choose to stay in Cullowhee.”
And collegiality among faculty and departments is a common plus listed among employees when asked about their favorite part of work at WCU.
“I would definitely say that that is a plus for Western. There is a lot of support,” said Cathy Grist, associate professor in the Human Services department. “I have heard of other universities where that is not the way it is.”
Colleagues tend to work together rather than compete.
“Everyone wants each other to succeed,” Caudle said.
Caudle added that department and school leaders also do little things here and there to make employees feel appreciated and heard.
“Our dean and department heads are actually cooking us breakfast,” Caudle said. “That is the kind of stuff that keeps people around, the meaningful interaction.”
Promoting research, providing time
In addition to family policies and benefits, research and support for research did not rank well among WCU faculty — but again administrators were not caught off guard.
“This is something that was not really unexpected,” Lord said. “It has been an area of some concern.”
On the COACHE survey, faculty cited a lack of graduate student assistance, support for obtaining grants and time available to spend on research. Most of the questions dealt with how supported faculty felt as they moved through the research process.
Between 2011 and this year — when the survey was taken and when the results debuted — WCU created a new faculty research support person within its faculty commons, an office that provides various forms of aid to faculty members. By hiring someone whose sole focus is supporting faculty research, opinions about the topic have begun to rise.
“I think that it’s gotten better recently. I think that we have historically not been very focused on research. But of late, that has become a higher priority,” said Jack Summers, associate professor of inorganic biochemistry.
But there is still room for improvement despite the measures already implemented.
“The support is really not there in terms of reduced teaching load,” Summers said. And “Secretarial services is spotty.”
By allowing faculty members to cut back on teaching hours and providing someone to help with the pesky paperwork, professors can focus more on their research. Summers said he spends hours filling out budget paperwork and dealing with outside vendors — time he could be in a laboratory or out in the field.
“There are a lot of places where I feel it could be streamlined,” Summers said.
Figuring out how to write grants can also be troublesome if there is no one there to provide guidance.
However, in general, faculty members have said that research support is getting better.
“I think there could be some improvement, but I think overall there is good support for research,” said Marie-Line Germain, assistant professor of human resources and leadership.
Germain said WCU has helped her financially when she wanted to attend conferences to exhibit her latest research.
Professor Laura Cruz said that some faculty research gripes have less to do with the services provided by the university and more to do with the fact that faculty want WCU to be a research university, which it’s not.
“The world doesn’t need more crappy research facilities,” said Cruz, associate professor of history and associate director of the Coulter Faculty Center. “Too often institutions like ours try to be Research 1 institutions. But we can’t be.”
View the findings
Check out the full COACHE results from Western Carolina University at www.wcu.edu/12831.asp.