Just how big a problem is faculty recruitment and retention? Consider a few numbers. About 2 decades ago, a quarter of orthodontics departments were seeking to fill vacant positions; during the next decade, that figure almost doubled. Twenty years ago, the typical department functioned with 5 faculty lines; today, 3 do the same work. This situation presents some significant challenges.
Fewer of our gifted graduates are pursuing academic careers, and others are leaving academics; many seasoned faculty members are retiring, even as more students are in the pipeline because of new programs. The common belief is that the income disparity between academics and private practice is the main cause of this brain drain. Data derived from focus groups (funded by the American Association of Orthodontists Foundation) suggest that the problems are more complex and pervasive. Groups consisting of junior faculty, teachers, administrators, and leaders mentioned other factors more often than the financial disparity: less than satisfactory work environments, failures in departmental and school administrative leadership, and lack of mentoring. Other factors were cited equally with salary: unrealistic criteria for promotions and tenure, and insufficient protected time for career and professional development.
These problems create environments in which increased demands on educators leave little time for faculty to develop as effective teachers, scholars, clinicians, and administrators. Senior faculty and administrators are often too burdened to be effective mentors for their junior colleagues, and dwindling institutional financial resources impede research. The latter results in the real possibility of an innovation deficit, not only making a scholarly career much more challenging, but also threatening the very foundations of evidence-based clinical practice.
Clearly, there are many barriers to success in academics, but the lack of a supportive environment and the impact of budget cuts cannot be discounted. Educators perceive the academic work environment negatively because of imbalanced time commitments; intellectual isolation; funding uncertainties; excessive emphasis on too narrowly defined research productivity; minimal opportunities to develop scholarship, administrative, clinical, and didactic skills; frustrations with dental school politics and bureaucracy; and excessive educational debt. Despite these significant challenges, some young educators do indeed develop successful and rewarding academic careers. Often these successes occur in nurturing environments characterized by opportunities for satisfying scholarship and teaching under excellent leadership and with colleagues who provide intellectual challenges and mentoring. Unfortunately, many orthodontics departments do not have the resources or personnel to provide such environments, leading to persistent faculty recruitment and retention difficulties. This constant churning impedes the development of first-rate faculty.
The financial concerns of orthodontic faculty are unquestionably important, but it seems clear that we will not be able to solve faculty shortages without also addressing other issues. Bringing salaries into line with private practice might be an unrealistic goal and could lead to ignoring the other factors contributing to the shortages. Most junior faculty want to succeed in academics. Many say that they knew in advance that they would earn less money than their peers in private practice and that it would take longer to pay off their student loans, but they felt that academics was a better fit for them than private practice, and therefore they accepted that tradeoff. Financial problems often seemed to become more important when other things that were originally appealing about an academic career failed to materialize. This suggests that to retain orthodontic faculty, we need to do a much better job of addressing the academic environment. Programs to enhance research funding, loan forgiveness, mentoring, networking, workshops, and online course material are unquestionably needed, but how successful can they be without environmental changes at the local level? Many of these issues seem personal and unique to each faculty member or their individual institutions; others cannot be solved at either the personal or the institutional level, but need to be the focus of the specialty at large. Even accepting some limitations, well-conceived and broadly based programs aimed at identifying the career goals of faculty members and the barriers they experience at the grass roots would significantly enhance faculty recruitment, development, and retention, thus improving the overall quality of orthodontic education.