JANUARY 27, 2014


Questions to the President.

From Can Kilic (assistant professor, physics):
  There is an issue about the hiring criteria for postdoctoral associates, which is of importance to the physics faculty, and presumably to faculty in other science departments as well. After the last faculty council meeting, I asked Professor Hart what would be the most appropriate form in which this issue could be brought to the attention of the faculty council, and she suggested that I formulate it as a question to the President, and that I notify the council in writing in advance so that President Powers would have time to look into the matter beforehand. Therefore I am writing this email to explain the issue in detail.

It is our understanding that the university requires that for a new postdoctoral associate position only those candidates can be considered who have obtained their PhD no more than three years ago. We have been given to understand that the reasoning behind this restriction is that otherwise people in postdoctoral positions can be exploited into staying in such positions for a long time before they can continue on to faculty positions. While this argument may indeed be an important consideration in other areas in research, we strongly believe that it is not appropriate for postdoctoral hiring decisions in physics, and that this one-size-fits-all rule for all departments across the university should be reconsidered.

Most young physicists usually work 5-6 years (and sometimes longer) in postdoctoral appointments before any world-class University would consider them for a junior faculty position. There are in fact physicists who are considered leaders of the field today who have worked in three or more postdoctoral appointments before they were hired as faculty. If all universities imposed similar restrictions to eligibility for postdoctoral positions as UT Austin does, such prominent high-energy physicists would have been forced to leave the field at the completion of their first postdoctoral appointment.

Also, the above-mentioned restriction on hiring policy at UT Austin eliminates a large fraction of the candidate pool; in fact it is the more experienced and therefore more productive candidates that become ineligible for a postdoctoral position at UT Austin. This has negative consequences both for the quality of research that is produced at UT Austin, and also for those candidates that are more than qualified who nevertheless find themselves with one less position they can apply to in a job market, which already has a high attrition rate.

Therefore, we would like to ask President Powers whether he would consider a revision of this hiring restriction.

President Powers responded that there are two rules regulating postdoctoral appointments; first, the candidate must be within three years or less of having earned their PhD, and second, there is a five year limitation on a postdoctoral residency at the University. President Powers stated these rules stem from AAUP and faculty rights’ movements, acknowledging that postdoctorals are an efficient, low-cost way for a university to complete their work, but that postdoctoral positions should be viewed as educational, preparatory positions in the same vein as medical school residencies, which serve as transitional states from an educational program into a more permanent faculty or research position. He stated that the five-year limit is typical at major research universities around the country.

President Powers stated that the proper way to hire someone outside of the three-year timeframe from their PhD, for example, someone with years of experience in industry or at another university, would be to hire them as a faculty member or research scientist. He then mentioned that, under appropriate circumstances, an exception may be made and the provost could waive the three-year timeframe for postdoctorals.

From Michael Domjan (professor, psychology):
  I would like to begin by commending you for participating with President Obama in the recent White House forum on increasing educational opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students. A major issue for such students is how to finance their education. Financial aid rarely pays all of the costs, and many students often have to find part-time jobs to make ends meet. For students moving to Austin from other parts of the state, finding part-time employment can be a daunting task, especially in the first year. They have to locate potential employers, fill out a different application form for each employer, travel from site to site for interviews, etc. It would be much easier for students to obtain part-time employment if such jobs were available on campus or were coordinated by a campus employment service.

The UT Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates headed by Dean Randy Diehl also recommended that the University "offer more on-campus employment that both fulfills the financial needs of the students and helps keep them connected to the campus." I would like to inquire what progress has been made in incorporating on-campus employment opportunities for students as a part of their financial aid package.

President Powers stated that he wants to make as much financial support available to undergraduate and graduate students as possible and that financial aid is a high priority. However, work study, like so many issues at the University in our current circumstances, including faculty and staff salaries or hiring TAs, is a financial commitment that competes with other needs in times of limited budgets.

President Powers mentioned that statistics show that students who work twenty hours or less on campus do better in terms of four-year graduation rates, retention rates, and grade point averages than both students who work forty hours off campus and students who do not work at all.

President Powers discussed the programs the University currently provides to address work study, financial, and student success support issues. One of the operational recommendations of the Commission of 125 was for students to live closer to campus to create higher student success rates. While San Jacinto and Duren dorms were built in response to this, President Powers mentioned that private dorms and housing in West Campus, many of which include UT input and student programs or University offices, have helped alleviate some of the University’s responsibility regarding the housing situation. However, he did encourage that projects focused on nearby, moderate-income housing take precedence in future University plans.

The president discussed several other University programs that, while not specifically work study, help students find and maintain jobs and income throughout the course of their studies at UT. These programs include the University Leadership Network, which helps train students and involve them in work that furthers their field of study, careers, and leadership skills. The University Leadership Network currently employs 500 students and provides students with $5,000 per year for four years. Given a recent $10 million contribution, there are plans to increase that number to 2,000 students.

The human resources department provides a Student Employee Excellence Development Program, which places students in jobs and positions of leadership across campus. Student Financial Services runs Hire a Longhorn, which helps match students to both on and off campus jobs. President Powers stated that he is in complete philosophical agreement with providing student financial aid and enabling student success wherever possible.

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