USC Lures Two Top Scientists: A Case Study in Recruitment Poaching

May 27, 2013
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

USC trojansAfter years of unsuccessfully courting two of the world’s preeminent neuroscientists with offers of more money, bigger and better facilities, a larger budget, and almost anything else they wanted, the University of Southern California finally closed the deal last month when its top recruiters sold them on lifestyle.

Poaching Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson and practically the entire staff of their Laboratory of Neuro Imaging from crosstown rival University of California/Los Angeles came down to things as hard to predict as a senior school official greeting janitors and doctors alike, and as hard to control as a commute.

How USC finally lured Toga and Thompson is a case study in recruiting world-class talent, showing the importance of every part of the process; from building and maintaining a relationship, to encouraging employee networking, involving the most senior people, and creating a culture where deans know janitors as well as they know their medical school faculty.

Toga and Thompson announced they would be leaving UCLA, where both have been for almost two decades. With them go some 85 graduate and post-doctoral students, and others from the 105 laboratory staff. UCLA tried to put a good face on the mass exit, but, the Los Angeles Times quoted other leaders in the field describing it as a major coup for USC.

In an anatomy of the recruiting effort, The Times described an effort that began three years ago with offers of money and facilities. Then, UCLA responded by expanding the lab and giving the men more resources. This time, when USC heard the men and their lab were being courted by the University of Pennsylvania, an all-out recruiting effort was launched that extended from faculty friends of the two who tipped off the university Penn’s interest all the up to the top USC executives.

The Times reports that a turning point came at a dinner in February when USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett and Executive Vice Provost Michael Quick talked with Toga, not about the lab, or a possible offer, but about his life and the things that excite him. Toga told The Times that driving home from that dinner, “I knew I really wanted to work for these people.”

Thompson, his partner in the lab, was touched when, during one of the campus tours, Dr. Carmen Puliafito, dean of the USC medical school and a future boss, greeted doctors and janitors alike, convincing him it was genuine by mentioning personal details.

Salary, though certainly one of the issues on the table, wasn’t decisive. Toga was being paid $1 million a year at UCLA; Thompson earned $421,000. What convinced them was USC’s commitment to building a world-class program, the facilities, and those other, “softer” considerations, including, for Toga, proximity to family and commute time, and for Thompson, Southern California’s climate and the imposition a move to Pennsylvania would have made on his family and lab staff. The USC culture, too, was important, especially the faster decision-making a private school offers over the state run UCLA.

By the time the details were finally resolved, Toga and Thompson were clearly so convinced they didn’t give UCLA an opportunity to counter. Toga told The Times he didn’t want “to play games.”

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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