Retaining and Rewarding High-Performing Faculty

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The news is filled with accounts of extended pay freezes and tightened departmental budgets. More than ever, it is crucial to identify creative, meaningful, and low-cost ways to reward and retain high-performing faculty. Mary Coussons-Read, professor of psychology and acting chair of the department of physics at the University of Colorado Denver, reviews low-cost practices that can make a difference.

Rethink Performance Rewards

“Don’t get so caught up in the trees that you don’t see the forest,” Coussons-Read warns. “The forest is the need to help your faculty feel good about the work they do. There are many trees you can shake besides the salary adjustment tree.”

While rewarding performance will rarely be free of cost, you can consider a variety of low-cost and one-time expenses that allow you to appreciate faculty. The difficulty of a salary increase is that it is a permanent addition to the ongoing budget.  There are many options for rewarding performance for which that is not the case. Look for one-time expenses.

Beyond salary increases, you can recognize faculty achievements and, at the same time, use those achievements to encourage a high-performing faculty culture by:

  • Making the most of your faculty awards competition
  • Inviting high-performing faculty to take mentoring roles
  • Awarding faculty with resources, time, and professional development opportunities

Make the Most of Your Faculty Awards

“One way to leverage your awards for excellence in teaching, research, and service without investing significantly more money is to make more noise about them,” Coussons-Read suggests. Beyond integrating the competition into a departmental reception or an annual dean’s reception, look for additional opportunities to celebrate and publicize the achievements of those faculty who contended and won:

  • Post a celebration of the achievement on the department website
  • Interview the faculty winners for the alumni newslette
  • Invite faculty who won the award to offer a keynote address to their college during the next term or the next year

“The dean or the provost can introduce Dr. Brown,” Coussons-Read illustrates, “who can then give a keynote address to the faculty defining the three lessons she has learned in her teaching, or a related topic germaine to why she won the award. Offer punch and cookies — it needn’t be an expensive occasion, just thoughtful and highly public.”

Also, increase publicity around the awards themselves to encourage both faculty pride and performance:

  • Generate “buzz” around the awards earlier in the year
  • Make it clear that an award reflects well on the college or the department, and generate a healthy level of competition between colleges
  • Make it clear whether teaching, research, and service excellence awards will be one factor in the dean’s decision on where to allocate funds across departments

When nominating faculty for the awards, department chairs can also note those faculty who may be in a position to compete for the award in a year or two. Use this as a professional development opportunity: the chair can draw prospective faculty members aside and chat with them about a few things they can do or improve that will put them on the path toward nomination.

Beyond high-profile faculty awards, other low-cost opportunities for public recognition of faculty achievements include:

  • Acknowledging a professor’s achievement during a faculty meeting
  • Holding a smaller, more intimate “celebration of faculty excellence” reception at the dean or department chair’s home

Invite High-Performing Faculty to Serve as Mentors

A prevalent human resources practice in other industries is to provide high performers with frequent, structured opportunities to share their best practices with colleagues. The practice can easily be adapted to higher education. Establishing structured opportunities for mentoring or sharing practices can cultivate faculty pride, reward high performers, and encourage a high-performance faculty culture.

Here are two examples.

Dr. Hopkins has done exceptional work with course design that encourages experiential learning, and this has become evident through student feedback and peer observations of the course. Here are three ways to recognize Dr. Hopkins:
  • Ask Dr. Hopkins to present at the next faculty meeting, taking half the meeting to share how he transformed the course and to offer specific recommendations to his colleagues (This also offers Dr. Hopkins a new line on his CV)
  • Inform the teaching effectiveness center on campus that Dr. Hopkins is a key resource who can be consulted on integrating experiential learning into the classroom
  • Nominate Dr. Hopkins for a teaching award; even if he does not win the award, publicize his achievement and his nomination
Dr. Smith is a senior professor with a long track record of securing grants. Here are four ways to recognize Dr. Smith:
  • Invite Dr. Smith to facilitate (or co-facilitate, with other successful researchers) grant writing workshops for other faculty
  • Offer Dr. Smith the role of serving as a research mentor to junior faculty, and let her know that in recognition, you will give her full points on her service obligation for the year
  • Feature Dr. Smith in the departmental bulletin or the alumni newsletter, perhaps with an interview or Q&A
  • Invite Dr. Smith to speak at a student research day or at an event for the undergraduate honors society in her field; photograph the event and write about it in the campus newsletter and on the website

Both of these scenarios provide a thoughtful department chair or dean with opportunities to further recognize the notable achievements of a faculty member in ways that encourage departmental pride and achievement in their colleagues.

For ways to rethink faculty mentoring, read our article “Keeping Faculty Mentoring Meaningful.”

Reward Faculty with Resources

Finally, Coussons-Read recommends identifying non-monetary resources that you can offer high-performing faculty both in recognition of their achievement and to help further their professional activities. For example:

  • Give teaching offloads to research-productive faculty, or adjust class enrollments as a reward
  • If your department is seeing some indirect cost return from a faculty member’s grant, opt to award some portion of that back to the faculty member
  • Cover the costs of registration and travel or a conference — but be strategic: allocate those funds for an event that is related to the specific faculty work you want to communicate appreciation for (for example, if you have a high-performing professor who is hoping to integrate a new technology into teaching and learning, help fund that professor’s participation in a conference relevant to that integration; if you have faculty who are very involved in service to the department or the institution, consider sending them to a national AAUP meeting)
  • Fund a graduate assistant for a semester (a small, one-time cost)

Be diligent in identifying opportunities to provide assistants to high performers. If a faculty member does not need a graduate assistant in the lab, consider an assistant who can help them write a grant or complete a paper. Whether you have a faculty member who is doing well in teaching and needs the time to develop a new class or a faculty member who is doing well in research and needs time to develop a new project, a student assistant can help make that time available to them.

Look for opportunities to award service, as well. If the faculty member has been doing exemplary service writing bylaws for your department or has been engaged in planning efforts for faculty development for the whole college, offer them a student assistant to help them with some of the writing or secretarial work.

These options communicate recognition and gratitude, and convey that the department cares about the faculty and their work.