Lafayette College

Students at Lafayette College walk to class on a recent morning. (Kevin Mingora/The Morning Call)

Lafayette College. Lehigh University. Moravian College. Muhlenberg College. DeSales University. Cedar Crest College.

Through the decades, these private institutions have taught students how to think critically, debate clearly and work collaboratively.

But there is something else these institutions of higher learning have done for the Lehigh Valley.

They have kept the local economy pumping with steady, good-paying professional jobs that require master's or doctorate degrees and give municipalities and school districts high taxable income in good times and in bad.

The Great Recession whacked the institutions' endowment funds, slowed hiring and curtailed spending. Moravian eliminated six administrative positions through layoffs in 2009 and left four other positions unfilled.

But none of the six was forced to make drastic cuts like Kutztown University, a state-owned institution, which in May 2010 eliminated 39 jobs.

That's because these private institutions don't count on Harrisburg's coffers like state-owned universities or state-affiliated universities such as Temple in Philadelphia.

Private colleges tend to use endowments, tuition, private fundraising and, to a degree, federal funding for research positions to keep their engines running.

But the economy is apparently loosening up enough for some local institutions to begin hiring -- at least among the professor and teaching ranks. In most cases, they are not adds to staff, but hires to replace professors who retire or move on.

Lafayette in Easton plans to hire 35 faculty in the next five to seven years, including three this academic year and two in 2011-12, according to Wendy Hill, provost and dean of faculty.

Pat Farrell, Lehigh provost and vice president for academic affairs, said his Bethlehem institution hires between 19 and 20 faculty positions a year regardless of the economy.

Moravian, also in Bethlehem, has five teaching positions it is trying to fill.

Most colleges and universities, however, do not plan to add support staff such as secretaries, security, maintenance and skilled labor like carpenters and electricians, according to interviews with human resources officials.

Filling faculty jobs is a lot different than support staff in higher education because the economy and endowments play less of a roll for faculty.

When filling faculty positions the deans of various disciplines meet with their staffs and administrative provosts to discuss student enrollment and interest. They also try to evaluate through multi-year strategic plans whether new fields of study, especially in the sciences, should be added to train students for emerging fields.

"Every college has a strategic plan," Farrell said.

The competition for well-paying faculty jobs is fierce and often includes an international search for candidates.

The competition does not stop once candidates land jobs. They have to work their way up the tenure ranks to reach the highest pay that comes with being a full professor, a journey that can take seven or more years depending on the institution.

Curtis said his organization's annual staff and salary surveys show a long-term national trend of institutions filling faculty jobs with non-tenure-track professors. The professors who are hired are given one- to three-year contracts that tend to not offer employees a chance to move up the employment ladder, he said.