UNC-Chapel Hill officials warn of “brain drain” — again

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill officials are once again voicing concerns over faculty retention. The “brain drain” concern is that other universities are “raiding” UNC-CH faculty with greater salary offers. UNC-CH officials say the university lost 53 professors to “raids” last year.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert N. Shelton addressed those concerns in an October presentation before the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. They can be found online at the provost’s web page (www.unc.edu/provost) in a report entitled “The Impact of State Budget Reductions on UNC Chapel Hill.”

According to the report, the concern is not over “the loss of faculty due to retirement, non-reappointment, or career change” but instead “the competition for our best faculty: those we treasure most, and who are most attractive to our peer institutions.” Shelton told the Herald-Sun of Durham that the report didn’t include those faculty members who left without a counter-offer from UNC-CH.

“In the mid-1990’s we lost 2.0% of our faculty to competing institutions; by 2002-03, our rate of loss had climbed to 2.9%,” the report states. “Average salary difference in [the College of] Arts and Sciences is $30,000 less than competing institution,” and “Faculty received average raise of 2.48% plus one-time bonus of $550 for 2003-04, and average raise of 2.55% for 2002-03.”

Chancellor James Moeser spoke of the problem in his “State of the University” speech in October. “From 1991 until 2000, we successfully retained 60 percent of the college faculty who received offers from other institutions for whom we made counter-offers,” Moeser said. “In the first two years of this decade, we succeeded in about half of those cases in the college. Last year, however, the percentage of losses in the college climbed to 60 percent, while across the university at large it was even higher.”

Moeser said UNC-CH needed “regular appropriations for merit salary increases.” He also said private donors have committed $1.1 billion to the Carolina First campaign to “provide research and program support for faculty, as well as for the bricks and mortar essential to their work.”

But as the Herald-Sun pointed out, “In some cases, the salary differential between what UNC was offering and what a competing institution put on the table was staggering.” And a staff editorial noted that UNC-CH administrators are silent on the issue of “UNC’s success in mounting raids of its own … the kind of information that would let people judge whether the additions are offsetting the subtractions, quality-wise.”

“The whole issue of whether Carolina has a ‘brain drain’ is not whether professors are leaving, but whether Carolina is replacing them with other competent professors,” said George Leef, director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. “Is Moeser saying that the new professors hired in the departing ones’ place are incompetent? I don’t think so.”

UNC-CH officials are now saying the problem is worse than in the past. But during the 1990s, UNC-CH officials were warning that the problem threatened to doom the university. Ten years ago, for example, UNC-CH officials warned of “a growing crisis at North Carolina’s only state-run, nationally recognized research institutions. The brain drain, they say, will reduce the important research being conducted at the schools and unhinge the crucial academic link in the Research Triangle Park,” as stated in The News & Observer June 14, 1993.

The Charlotte Observer of Feb. 13, 1993, reported that Chancellor Paul Hardin said, “Though UNC hasn’t had ‘wholesale losses’ of professors, ‘we are fighting off raids (by other schools) literally every semester.”

Three years later, Chancellor Michael Hooker warns in the Charlotte Observer of May 28, 1996: “It is not too soon to be frightened for our own welfare — and by ‘our,’ I mean the state of North Carolina, not the university.”

But as Hooker and other university officials were issuing dire proclamations of brain drain, the N&O reported on June 4, 1996, “Paul Hardin, the former UNC-CH chancellor who retired last year, said the theory was greatly exaggerated during the fight over state budget cuts a few years ago. It led to the generally accepted notion that the university was slipping, Hardin said.”

Furthermore, a recent study of compensation of university faculty published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy found that UNC-CH’s faculty pay — salary and benefits — was very competitive compared with its peers in terms of purchasing power. In the study, those peers were the other 149 Doctoral/Research Universities-Extensive, as categorized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. But UNC-CH competes well even among its peers as stated by Moeser in his State of the Union addresses in 2001 and 2002: Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, and Virginia. In terms of purchasing power, UNC-CH’s salary and compensation for full professors, associate professors, and assistant professors bested those of their peers except for Michigan’s.

The Jefferson study looks only at institutions’ faculty compensation in general, however. It cannot speak to cases of individual faculty members being recruited away with offers of large compensation packages, which may not only exceed that being paid by UNC-CH, but also may well exceed the average being offered by the other school.