Filling endowed chairs tricky in tight economic times

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 4:08 p.m. CST, Monday, February 15, 2010
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Sam Kiger is associate dean of research at the College of Engineering. His last name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story.

COLUMBIA — You’ve heard of the gift that keeps on giving. MU’s College of Engineering might have received the gift that keeps on taking.

Alumnus Glen Barton and the Missouri Asphalt Pavement Association gave a $1.1 million donation last November to establish an endowed chair in flexible pavement technology — that is, asphalt. Endowed chairs and professorships are positions in which the interest from an endowment fund provides some of the salary and research funds. But because of the way these positions are financed, the College of Engineering can’t afford to fill the position right now.


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While endowments provide supplemental funding for the positions, the university still pays the professors' base salaries, said Beth Hammock, MU director of development communication. In funding an endowed position, the original gift isn't touched; it's invested, and only the annual interest goes toward funding the professorship or chair.

At an average annual interest rate of 5 percent, which is a typical benchmark, a $1.1 million gift yields $55,000 a year in interest. Sometimes that covers a substantial portion of the endowed position's salary; sometimes it's up to the university to cover most of the money for the position.

With the current constraints on hiring, this means there aren’t enough funds to hire the Barton Chair, despite the $1.1 million donation.

“With the university’s budget situation, we really can’t get a new faculty line right now, but we’re hoping it will be possible in the not-so-distant future,” said Mark Virkler, chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering. The position would be in Virkler’s department.

For now, the department is hiring an adjunct professor to teach asphalt technology, Virkler said. Although it’s a useful stopgap, the adjunct professor can't fulfill the research purposes of the chair, said Dave Yates, executive director of the asphalt group that made the donation.

By drawing a leading researcher in the field to MU, the person holding the Barton Chair is expected to do research that would benefit the field. He or she is also expected to bring in about $500,000 to $1 million a year in research funding, according to a memo by Sam Kiger, associate dean of research at the College of Engineering.

Attracting talent

The Barton Chair underscores the problem a cash-strapped university like MU faces as it works to establish new endowed faculty positions.

“We’re not able to just come up with new money,” Hammock said. “There’s an expense that comes with the prestige (of an endowed chair), and it’s an ongoing cost forever.”

At the same time, endowed faculty positions help attract and retain the best professors whose work raises the stature of the university, MU Provost Brian Foster said. That affects a range of things, including winning research grants and attracting students, he said.

This directly influences a student’s college experience, said John Foley, an MU classical studies professor who holds two endowed professorships.

“For students, it’s one thing to have professors teach you based on other people’s discoveries,” Foley said. “It’s another thing to go to a school where the professors are making those discoveries.”

Foley has been the MU William H. Byler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities since 1985 and a Curators' professor since 1998. He said these appointments each came at “a very good time” when he had other job possibilities and ultimately helped him decide to stay at MU.

Hammock said it’s no secret faculty salaries are comparatively low at MU. (Faculty salaries are second to last in MU's peer group of public schools in the Association of American Universities.) In recent years, she said, many of MU’s new endowed faculty have been internal hires. 

Curators' concern

While the Barton Chair has not raised controversy, empty chairs have caused worry in past years.

In 2007, the UM System Board of Curators discussed the problem of vacant chairs. Don Walsworth, board chairman at the time, said donors were frustrated when their chairs remained empty. Curator John Carnahan voiced the concern that empty chairs might turn off potential donors.

The reasons behind the vacancies at the time were to do with the "unusual and peculiar" nature of those chairs, Carnahan said this week. He said he isn't able to comment on the effect of economic constraints on vacant chairs today.

Creating an endowed chair

There are two starting levels to fund positions at MU: a minimum donation of $1.1 million to establish an endowed chair or $550,000 to establish an endowed professorship. As of December, MU had 152 filled endowed faculty positions and 18 open endowed positions.

Within the UM System, required donation sums vary from campus to campus, and this affects how costly it is for a school to establish a new endowed position. For instance, the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla requires roughly twice as large a donation as MU does. There, as at MU, gifts are sometimes used as supplements for existing positions.

Using an endowment gift to supplement an existing position is not an option in cases such as the Barton Chair. The purpose of the Barton Chair is to advance an area of research the university doesn’t specialize in, so an external hire is necessary, Virkler said.

Currently an external hire isn’t possible, but “if we had a faculty member retire, or if the university were to provide us with another faculty line, it might be possible,” Virkler said. “It’s a work in progress.”

Missourian reporter Jessica Fly contributed to this article.

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Paul Love February 10, 2010 | 8:40 a.m.

Nice article, does anyone know what happens to the revenue from the endowment when the chair is unfilled? Does it go into a general fund or does the interest roll back into the endowment? If it rolls back into the endowment each year it is more likely to be able to fill the chair as the revenue stream from the endowment will increase.

(Report Comment)
Eva Dou February 10, 2010 | 9:22 a.m.

Paul, thanks for the comment. The endowment revenue cannot be used for other purposes if the position is unfilled, so any interest rolls back into the endowment.

(Report Comment)
Erin Romer February 11, 2010 | 7:47 a.m.

I'd like to find out about the salary ranges for endowed chairs at private universities. No doubt endowed chairs make more money than regular professors, but how much more?

(Report Comment)

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