When Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. left Duke in 1991, he came to Harvard because administrators offered him the chance to build the African and African American Studies Department from the ground up.
At the time, the department had only one tenured professor, Werner M. Sollors. But, the University President and the acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the time—Derek C. Bok and Henry Rosovsky—persuaded Gates to pursue his career at Harvard. They told him, Gates said, that Harvard would support him in constructing “the greatest center of African and African American studies in history.”
And Gates knew that commitment was genuine.
“When they were recruiting me, they had all the black faculty at Harvard plus Professor Sollors for a dinner,” Gates said. “Each one went around the table to speak, to say why it was important for me to join. I was in tears, I had never experienced anything like that.”
In the years that followed, Gates attracted a group of superstars in the field—Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Cornel R. West ’74, William J. Wilson—to his department, hosting similar dinners.
Gates said people often ask how he convinces academics to join him at Harvard, how he “bought” them, so to speak. But he argues that individuals worthy of Harvard tenure—“scholars of the first order of eminence,” as faculty guidelines state—cannot be bought.
“No one in this job should be thinking, ‘This is my path to getting rich,’” Economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan said. “We’re very well paid, and comfortable, and life is good, but in some sense you’re in this job because you’re like, ‘I want to do something very big.’”
At the same time, there are other factors—sometimes financial—that bring faculty to and from Harvard. These are highly specific to individual circumstances, and what attracts one professor to Harvard might be the very factor that prompts another to leave.
Administrators focus on recruiting and retaining top-notch faculty, sometimes incentivizing them to stay with waived down-payments on mortgages, prime spots on the years-long child care waitlist, or honors such as the prestigious Radcliffe professorships. Other times, though, Harvard cannot offer some professors what they need to stay: a job for a spouse, proximity to an aging relative, or significant laboratory space and equipment.
Indeed, star departures in recent years indicate that Harvard may not always have what every professor wants. In the fall of 2015, for example, Raj Chetty, a MacArthur-winning economist projected to receive the Nobel Prize, traded Harvard’s ivy tower for Stanford’s sunny, buzzing campus.
And Harvard’s administrators have noticed.
“When we hear about somebody that’s being recruited by another institution, we talk to them,” FAS Dean Michael D. Smith said. “What’s going on in your life? How can we make your life here even better? What are the issues that are coming up? And why is that you even want to think about leaving our wonderful environment?”
Julio Frenk, former dean of the School of Public Health, turned down several job offers from Harvard’s peer universities. That is, until the University of Miami offered him its presidency.
“I was more than happy at Harvard, and anyone can tell you… I was really enjoying my role as dean,” Frenk said, adding, “I was not planning to leave Harvard at all.”
For Frenk, the decision to leave depended on “a unique combination of factors”: good timing, a job offer geared toward his research interests, and the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of one of his mentors, University President Drew G. Faust.
“I don’t think I would have accepted an offer in any other place,” Frenk said. “There were zero push factors. It was the pull of Miami.”
Smith said he sees the ebb and flow of the faculty as varied, highly specific, and constant. Over the past couple of years, Harvard’s peer institutions have “poached” top professors in fields ranging from history to the study of religion.
“A lot of our peer institutions right now are deciding to spend some money and try to recruit away many of our extremely talented and exciting and successful faculty,” Smith said. “It’s a big part of my time.”
Last semester, History professor Niall C.D. Ferguson announced that he would leave Harvard for Stanford’s Hoover Institution, an American public policy think tank that will not require Ferguson to teach.
“As I said when my appointment at Stanford was announced, this was not a sideways move from one History department to another,” Ferguson wrote in an email, adding, “My move really wasn't about that kind of thing, which is not to deny that Stanford made me a very attractive offer!”
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said professors’ departures are inevitable, but they do indicate the depth of talent at Harvard.
"Let me just say that I would be much more concerned if other universities weren’t trying to recruit our faculty,” he said.
Available lab and office space and opportunities for expansion can factor into a professor’s decision to remain at Harvard, or to leave. Economics Department Chair David I. Laibson ’88 said a lack of space for the department “is certainly one of the challenges we faced in the past in these retention events.”
And for Physics Department Chair Masahiro Morii, concerns arise around Harvard’s lack of clarity about future opportunities for physical expansion. He said the department has faced difficulties in hiring new research-based professors because of limited office and laboratory space.
“You don’t hire somebody senior and say, ‘Okay, come in with a couple students and postdocs and then [sit] there for the next 35 years,’” Morii said. “They all want some potential for expanding and making their research program bigger.”
Harvard’s tenure policy—which offers academic job security only at the full, rather than at the associate, professor level—also may influence tenure-track professors to accept offers elsewhere.
“It’s a very stressful number of years as you’re trying to get tenure, and people can get discouraged,” Faust said. “It’s often possible to get a very nice tenure job at a different institution earlier in career or slimmer in publication record. And so I think that’s an attraction, too.”
Though Smith said administrators aim to provide competitive benefits for faculty, there are lines he will not cross.
“I’m not a fan of teaching relief, I’m not looking to hire faculty who don’t actually want to teach undergraduate students,” Smith said. “You can get those deals at other institutions—those are not deals you’ll get here.”
In order to defend against outside recruiters and retain its faculty members, Harvard capitalizes on work-life factors that could give it a competitive edge.
“Imagine what it’s like at [Cornell]—that’s an excellent university… but it’s in the middle of—it’s in Ithaca, upstate New York,” Government and Sociology professor Theda R. Skocpol said. “Harvard is in a metropolitan area, so it really should have fewer problems in arranging opportunities for dual-career couples than a lot of major American universities.”
Some also appreciate the Boston area as a place to start a family, given its highly-ranked public school districts.
“We could anticipate how living here as parents of teenagers would be great,” said Michèle Lamont, a Sociology professor who came to Harvard from Princeton in 2003. “Recently, our daughter took the subway to go to the beach by herself with her friends. She would never have been able to do that in Princeton.”
The Cambridge area is also expensive. The average single-family home costs nearly $1.5 million, and it’s a seller’s market, with the average house going for 107 percent of its list price as of last March, according to real estate agent Charles P. Cherney ’89 of Hammond Residential Real Estate. So Harvard, like most peer institutions in metropolitan areas, offers faculty housing assistance.
Lamont said Harvard offered two faculty members—recently promoted in the Sociology Department—loans without interest for housing. In other cases, Harvard will help with the initial down payment for a mortgage, Morii said.
“Housing plays a large part in all [recruits’] consideration to come to Harvard,” Susan Keller, director for faculty real estate and special projects, wrote in an emailed statement provided by Harvard Spokesperson Brigid O'Rourke. According to Keller’s statement, Faculty Real Estate Services offers two condominium options, developed on University land, priced more than 20 percent below fair market value for eligible faculty.
In addition to housing, childcare costs can also be sky-high in the Boston area. There are six Harvard-affiliated child care centers on campus, but fees can balloon up to $34,944 for a single child per year. And even obtaining that expensive childcare can be difficult; according to Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Judith D. Singer, the six daycares have just 380 combined slots. Individual centers can receive as many as half a thousand prospective applicants.
Harvard has in recent years established programs to subsidize childcare, such as Ladder ACCESS, which provides up to $20,000 to eligible faculty with children under the age of 6.
And for top talent, the University maintains a “Provost’s waiting list,” created specifically for recruitment and retention, according to Singer. Highly sought-after individuals placed on the list will be given priority for spots in Harvard’s daycare center.
“We work with the deans, and if they deem individuals a high enough priority, we will work with our friends in the Work/Life office to work with the centers,” Singer said. “Relative to the size of the number of slots in the centers, this is a very small piece of it.”
But childcare and housing are not why most faculty come to Harvard.
Indeed, the network of colleagues across fields continues to draw academics. Chemistry professor Daniel G. Nocera, who left MIT for Harvard three years ago, said that Harvard’s emphasis on the liberal arts and a strong faculty and alumni base compelled him to make the move.
“I wanted to get more engaged with the non-science research piece, and that’s the reason I moved to Harvard,” Nocera said. “And I will say, it’s worked out unbelievably well.”
Smith, the FAS Dean, said another draw are Harvard’s many graduate and professional schools, which offer faculty more opportunities to interact with students and practitioners in their field.
One academic “secret weapon” Harvard also employs in recruiting faculty are the Radcliffe professorships, Singer said.
Created by Faust when she was dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the professorships offer new hires the chance to pursue independent research for four semesters of their first five years at Harvard without teaching. This setup gives faculty time to focus on their research, a very attractive proposition for many.
According to Radcliffe spokesperson Alison Franklin, when a school’s dean identifies a “good fit” for a Radcliffe professorship, the dean can contact Radcliffe about a potential joint appointment. If Radcliffe administrators agree with the dean, the candidate receives an offer for a professorship at the institute.
In the end, though, the reasons for coming to, staying at, or leaving Harvard vary from case to case.
“There are personal issues, like Princeton is different than Cambridge, Palo Alto is different than Cambridge, and people have two-body problems and things like that,” Mullainathan, the Economics professor, said. “But I’ve got to imagine that Harvard is so committed to being a first-class research institution...that I would be shocked that if they didn’t make it that the research output could be as good here as there. Because who else are we going to bet on, if we’re not going to bet on the best people in the field?”
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.
—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.