BPD Update Online, Fall 2008

Small and Rural Programs
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Faculty Recruitment and Retention in Small Rural Programs

Vincent J. Venturini

Peggy Pittman Munke

One ongoing problem in small rural programs is the recruitment of qualified faculty.  This is particularly  true in rural areas that are more than fifty miles from a large urban area.  Issues cited by programs include  few applicants, applicants who apply to get a better deal at their present institution and applicants who cite the distance from libraries and other professional resources.  Other issues are often not spoken about and include lower salaries in general than larger schools as well as competition with larger universities with similar programs, heavier teaching loads, lack of appropriate jobs for trailing spouses, no time for research although there is some pressure to publish for tenure and promotion, not enough resources for attending conferences and  expectations that the new hire become a part of the university and of the community.  Still other issues surface when the new hire arrives.  If the applicant is single and looking for a life partner, it is often difficult to find appropriate venues other than church to meet prospective partners.  There is a lack of night life and of city amenities that most people who live in large urban areas take for granted.   Often departments expect single faculty to pull more time with students, including out of town chaperonage on field trips.  Sometimes faculty choose to commute from fifty or more miles away to have the amenities of a larger city and this keeps the new hire from bonding into the community where the college or university is located. 

The result may be that the program is forced to hire faculty from the MSW pool in the area.  This is a problem because the number of MSWs is often very small and this pulls MSWs from service delivery in the region.  There are other problems for the program as well.  Often the MSWs have no academic experience, come from the same two or three universities, and are geographically far removed from cutting edge professional education.  Often too they have not kept up with new developments in teaching social work.   The result is incestuous and can mean in some cases that students are taught from best practices of at least a decade ago.  Students are often not exposed to diversity within the program since students who attend small rural programs tend to be place bound and faculty from the region often mirror only the dominant culture.  Students often  do not find their ideas challenged nor prejudices overcome through interaction with the other.   Students also do not receive a diversity of practice philosophies.

If the program is fortunate enough to be able to recruit a faculty member or two from outside the area, there is resentment about ideas that are not in keeping with what the program has done for many years.  Change is slow, and may not take place at all.  The new hire often is excluded from the community life that informs university life in small rural areas, and feels isolated and unwelcome.  Often the life of both the town and the university faculty centers around religious faith that is evangelical and fundamentalist.  Many new hires from large urban areas do not share the same belief system and often find that the local religious belief system is reflected in the classroom by local faculty.  Faculty with alternative life styles or who are homosexual feel unwelcome, and often feel threatened.  Further, there is a steep learning curve for new hires outside the local area.  Rural universities often function as employment for their own graduates, and the result is that newer ways of running a university have not been adopted.  Rural universities often run additional programs away from the main campus.  Faculty who teach in these programs often find themselves dealing with issues that are more properly handled by administrative personnel, such as the registrar on the main campus. 

Rural ways are different than those of larger areas.  Rural people want to know their faculty on a more personal level, that is, they want to know about the hire as a person, and push the new hire to share information that may be boundary blurring, such as information about marriages, divorces, and prospective partners as well as about the new hire’s faith life.   In fact, for programs in colleges and universities under religious auspices, the conversation about faith life takes place during the interview process.  This in itself can make it difficult for the program to appeal to potential new hires. 

Rural programs that move from the BSW to the MSW face even greater difficulties.  It is very hard to hire the number of required PhDs, since there are usually few  people in the area with both the MSW and a PhD.  Also the number of faculty required are more than in the BSW program, and many small rural colleges and universities use the concept of teaching across programs to make up the numbers for the MSW program, thus robbing the BSW program of resources and faculty.  It is often difficult to find appropriate MSW placements for the practicum in the area and this may mean that the students must travel out of the area to a placement.  This also means that oversight of the field placement will take the faculty member out of the area, consuming more time in travel than in oversight.  This limits the faculty member’s time for his/her own scholarly endeavor.  Because there is a dearth of MSW supervisors for MSW students more faculty have to take on the additional responsibility of field liaison without commensurate release time from other responsibilities.

Communities too are often not ready for the new hire from outside the region.  The standard of practice may not have changed in 30 years.  New ideas about practice and working from the strengths and empowerment approach may be threatening to rural agencies hosting both MSW and BSW field placements.  If the new hire is named to community boards, there is often shock and disappointment about the perceived role as well as the make up of the board in rural areas.  Often board meetings center around discussion of people and issues that are not germane to work of the agency.  Further, staff are often hired on the basis of who they know rather than on the basis of what they know, that is educational credentials.  The board chair often assumes inordinate power and meddles in the day to day activities of the agency in a way that would not be permitted in a more urban area.  The new hire often feels as if s/he is Alice in Wonderland taking the trip down the rabbit hole.   Further, there are few of the large family service type agencies that large urban areas take for granted.  In fact, most of the larger agencies are public social service agencies such as child protection and welfare.

Yet, many faculty who come to rural programs to teach state that they would never want to teach anywhere else.  They cite small town friendliness, the ability to develop close friendships with a wide variety of people, and the informality as well as the emphasis on teaching rather than research that is often a characteristic of small rural programs.  Many prefer the students since many students feel privileged to be getting an education.  Students are likely to have rural ethics that mean that assignments are carried out faithfully.  Rural areas also provide social work faculty with fertile ground to practice some long held traditional methods of practice such as community organizing, and community development, as well as to use skills such as networking and brokering. In many small rural universities, social work is one of the flag ship programs.   Higher administration is proud to have an accredited social work program and often is very knowledgeable about the intricacies of the program and is intimately acquainted with faculty since social work is often the “go to” program on campus.  There is great satisfaction for some faculty members in being associated with the premier program on campus.  This also leads to more opportunities for power within the university for social work faculty.  Some faculty begin to develop research areas related to small rural areas and know that in sharing the knowledge gained they are performing a vital service.  Many view small rural areas as excellent places to raise a family or as excellent places to retire after their professional career is ended.  Recruiting faculty who have served much of their professional career in larger urban areas is an excellent strategy as well.  These people often already have a pension from the larger university and are willing to work for a smaller salary in return for an enhanced quality of life in the rural area.

So, how does a small rural program, once faculty are recruited and hired, retain faculty?  One way is to offer instruction in the culture of the area rather than letting the new hire find out through trial and error.  Explaining how things get done in the college or university is also critical, since small educational institutions generally carry out functions related to faculty differently than do larger ones.  Also, too, every college and university is somewhat different in terms of whom to approach for what so mentorship around university processes is critical.  Helping the new faculty member come up with a research agenda [as opposed to a publication agenda] is useful since the new faculty member develops an area of expertise related to the local region.  Another way is to offer mentorship and friendship to new hires.  Showing new hires the attractions of the area, introducing the new hire to community friends, and helping with finding a suitable place to live are all important elements in retention.  Something as simple as inviting the new hire to dinner on holidays can pay dividends in terms of retention.   Demonstrating support for the new hire’s ideas is also important.  Modeling a willingness to learn new ways by entrenched faculty is often the key to the new hire’s acceptance by students and the community. 

Through appropriate effort on the part of the entrenched faculty, the new hire can become a valued program faculty member as well as a valued community member.  This is one key to retention.  It is also a key to recruitment, because the new hire, if pleased with the university or college, can help attract other new hires from his/her professional base.   Another recruiting strategy that is often successful is inviting visiting professors to share their expertise with the small rural university for a semester or a year.  These people often not only enrich the campus where they are visiting but often go back to their home campus and recruit other faculty members to do the same thing.

An article on Unification is on the next page...

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

BPD Update Online, Volume 30, No. 3, Fall, 2008

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning