News Column

UO raises the bar on higher education

June 29, 2014

By Diane Dietz, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.

June 29--Editor's note: This series addresses the UO's bid to boost its academic standing through the development of "clusters of excellence."


Call it UO 2.0.

The University of Oregon hopes to improve its scholarly standing by hiring new faculty in academic "clusters," to lift the university to pre-eminence in specific narrow fields, mostly in the sciences.

The 2014 Cluster of Excellence Faculty Hiring initiative involves adding up to 40 new professors in 10 fields ranging from volcanology to obesity prevention to sports products -- if the UO can attract the money for the hires.

The hiring would be outside the UO's normal academic staffing process.

The plan is to "move the needle on those academic metrics that really count: publications, research grants, faculty awards, citations -- just the prominence of what it is we're doing as researchers," UO Provost Scott Coltrane recently told the UO's new Board of Trustees.

The UO has a precarious perch in the Association of American Universities, or AAU, the league of the nation's top-ranked research universities. The university wants to steady its grip by improving academics.

The UO is proposing to hire groups or "clusters" of professors in narrow fields beginning this coming fall, with the aim of bringing them to campus in fall 2015.

The cluster hiring program will be at the center of a major university fundraising campaign being launched in the fall. Donors will be able to sponsor work in the clusters they support the most.

But not everyone is happy with the top-10 list that university administrators chose from 34 proposals submitted from across campus. Humanities, for instance, got short shrift, and humanities professors are complaining.

The university is eager to get the clusters going because its academic measures are lagging behind its peers.

In recent years, the UO has brought in a surge of new students and their revenue. Enrollment now stands at about 24,500, up from about 20,000 10 years ago.

To handle the influx of students, the UO has hired low-cost instructors and adjunct professors instead of investing in tenure-track faculty, according to a report by Coltrane.

Oregon is dead last among peers in the ratio of tenure track faculty-to-students -- 35-to-1. That compares with the AAU average of 23-to-1, the report showed.

The lack of hiring hurt other key measures of university achievement, as well.

Tenure track faculty supervise students seeking advanced degrees. Today, the UO manages to award only half the master's degrees and about one-quarter of the doctorates of the average AAU university.

The UO lagged the association average in articles published, articles cited by other scholars and grant awards to support UO scholarly work.

"We need to expand dramatically the proportion of our faculty who are engaged in cutting edge research and creative endeavors," Coltrane wrote in a paper about cluster hiring.

The cluster hiring is meant to boost the UO's benchmarks, help it achieve national or international pre-eminence, build on the university's best programs, enhance cross-disciplinary work, and attract a diverse faculty.

Building momentum

Faculty submitting proposals toward the personnel effort got bonus points for presenting a clear hiring plan and showing an ability to use existing laboratories for the new hires.

Part of the power of clusters, university officials say, is that it can build momentum. Top flight faculty can recruit top notch faculty.

Ann Curry, the broadcast journalist who is a member of the UO Board of Trustees, said she met a UO researcher who had a substantial federal grant that brought thousands of dollars into the UO.

"The primary reason she decided to come to the University of Oregon was simply who she would work with," Curry said. "The idea of cluster hiring allows people to work with people they really respect and create great work."

The strategy of cluster hiring has been around since at least 1998, when the University of Wisconsin launched such a program.

Other schools followed: the University of Michigan, Georgia State University and the University of Iowa.

North Carolina State University is in the middle of a cluster hiring drive that aims to bring on board about 40 new faculty members in a dozen specific areas, including forensic sciences; digital transformation of education; and global environmental change and human well-being.

So far, 24 new faculty have been hired in Raleigh.

In the UO's first stab at cluster hiring, Coltrane solicited proposals for from faculty and administrators across campus.

Coltrane asked three panels of faculty and administrators to evaluate and score the 34 proposals. He said he asked the panels to ignore cost and rate proposals based on "intellectual rigor and excitement."

"The (panels) didn't vote just alike, but there was amazing consensus, about 80 percent agreement among them."

Coltrane presented a list of all 34 proposals to the trustees recently -- with the top 10 winners singled out. But the names of authors of the others were removed.

"I pulled people's names off of these because I don't want to embarrass those who didn't (get) it. There were a few dogs on here, but for the most part they were all pretty good," he said.

UO President Michael Gottfredson told the trustees he was pleased with the list, saying such proposals would be welcomed at any top tier research university.

"They would fund them as fast as possible -- every single one of them," Gottfredson said. "They're that good."

Coltrane said the university already has about $1.5 million for the project, and that's enough to launch from one to three of the top 10 clusters. The others will await the future largesse of donors.

Additionally, some of the 24 proposals that didn't make the top 10 will be in line for some of the university's regular revenue, Coltrane said.

"Some of them did quite well (in scoring) but didn't make the top 10 -- like environmental humanities or geospacial revolution, which is GIS social science applications," he said.

In the academic salon des refuses, meanwhile, are three proposals for studying climate change: climate sciences and policy; global change science; and global climate and hazard resilience.

Other runner-up topics were folklore, media and cultural engagement; power, equity and health; and scientific study of values.

"The final (top 10) list," Coltrane said, "tends to be weighted to the sciences and the applied social sciences and the prevention area. I've gotten a little feedback from this."

One "feedback" item was a June 11 letter from 36 department heads and center directors expressing collective surprise, dismay and disappointment. The humanities, liberal arts, social sciences and arts are left out or "severely underrepresented," the letter said.

"Wasn't there a single proposal from these disciplines that would help the university achieve the stated goals? ... The practical translation of these decisions is that university investment in new faculty resources over the next five to 10 years will almost completely ignore the humanities and social sciences."

The authors seemed particularly disturbed because until recently, Coltrane was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, where the humanities are housed. He was dean there for five years until February, when he ascended to the provost job, the No. 2 post at the university.

"You know very well the quality of our departments and programs, the energy and productivity of our faculty and the enormous contribution we make to the university's visibility, research portfolios, instruction, and diversity," the letter said.

"There is plenty of excellence to build upon in our departments and programs."

Coltrane said that the top 10 is just the "first round." The university will re-evaluate the situation every couple of years, and new proposals may rise to the top.

"We have enough buy-in," Coltrane told the trustees, "particularly as we begin to work and enhance some of these that didn't make it this round -- and find a way to invest in them."

At a university where tenure-track hiring has lagged, however, it's difficult for some faculty to have faith that more hiring will follow after the top 10 clusters are funded.

Part of the value of clusters is as a sales tool for university fundraising officers selling wealthy alumni and other deep pockets on the value of funding faculty salaries.

This summer, UO deans will be busy figuring a price tag for each of the cluster proposals -- how much for salaries and benefits, lab benches, equipment, computers, and the like.

"Some of these will need new labs that need to be constructed," Coltrane said. "Some will need rehab of existing space. Some we can slot right into what we have."

By fall, donors can know the specific cost of adding academic firepower for each of the 10 clusters.

The cost likely will be significant. A $10 million endowment might spin off only $400,000 a year in income to fund salaries and benefits and other ongoing costs.


Follow Diane on Twitter @diane_dietz . Send emails to .


The University of Oregon's "clusters of excellence" faculty hiring initiative aims to make the university a world class contender in 10 targeted fields. Over the summer, The Register-Guard will examine each of the 10 fields:

Vulcanology: UO wants four new professors to predict eruptions and explore geothermal energy

Sustainable Cities: Wants four professors to probe planning, design, policy and economics of cities

Sports Product: Wants four professors to merge business and product design to solidify Oregon's hold on the "alpha cluster" of sports products companies

Prevention and Intervention in Special Ed: Wants five professors to double research and scholarly productivity in the UO's highest-ranked academic program

Neurons to Minds: Wants four professors to explain the events that lead from neuron-level processing to whole-brain networks to human behavior

Life at Nanoscale: Wants three professors, using cutting-edge X-ray crystallography, to study how cells move, divide, differentiate and metabolize

Biological Networks Analysis: Wants five professors to use "big data" approaches to uniting analyses of thousands of single genes to discover how complex organisms are built -- from cell to brain

Obesity Prevention: Wants five professors as part of a united front -- education, physiology, biology, psychology and prevention sciences -- against obesity and to obtain federal grant dollars now flowing into this resolving national problem

Genome Function: Wants three professors to shore up the UO in the burgeoning field of epigenetics, the study of semi-heritable processes controlling the function of gene sets.

Energy and Sustainable Materials: Wants three professors to answer societal needs in energy and sustainable materials, including thin film devices, computational materials and inorganic materials synthesis


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