UNC-Chapel Hill suffers from a “raid”

RALEIGH — It’s a UNC ritual. Whenever a professor decides to take a better offer at some other university, usually a private one with a vast endowment and enormous alumni contributions, the administration will bemoan the “loss” and express fear over a “crisis” if the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can’t spend enough money to compete with the top-tier schools.

When the little drama is over, the administrators will go back to their offices and hope that they’ve convinced a few more politicians that UNC-CH’s budget must be increased.

This ritual was played out again very recently, when UNC-CH announced that it had been outbid by the University of Chicago for the services of a husband and-wife team of professors: namely, history professor James Hevia and anthropology professor Judith Farquhar.

This “raid” on the UNC-CH faculty prompted Richard Soloway, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Chapel Hill to lament that “The legislature, for better or worse, is simply not going to sustain the salary base at the competitive level we find ourselves facing.”

Is this a problem that North Carolina taxpayers ought to be worried about? Is the state facing a serious problem here? Or is the situation like that of children who magnify their little bumps and bruises into unbearably painful injuries in hopes of getting some attention and a treat?

Pardon my cynicism, but I think it’s the latter.

How do you know if you are offering too low a price in a market? The answer is: If you can’t get what you need. When applied to the market for labor, this means you’re offering compensation that’s too low if you’re unable to attract and retain a competent work force.

If, say, Wachovia Bank were to try cutting all its salaries in half, most of its workers wouldn’t stay around long, and the people willing to take their places would probably be of such low competence that customers wouldn’t stay around long either. Wachovia could hire new tellers at half the old rate, but they’d probably have a hard time handling transactions correctly. That would be proof that the new pay level was too low.

Even though the University of North Carolina is a non-profit institution, that doesn’t matter where the laws of economics are concerned. It’s still in a competitive labor market and has to make compensation attractive enough to retain a competent faculty.

True, UNC-CH occasionally loses a faculty member to another institution, but it’s also true that Wachovia occasionally loses an employee to a competitor (or for many other reasons). Employee turnover is a normal thing, and is only a problem – or even a crisis – if you can’t hire capable replacements at the salary offered.

How does UNC-CH fare in that regard? Looking over the last 15 years of faculty turnover in the History Department, Prof. Roger Lotchin says, “Looked at impressionistically, the History Department has more than held its own since 1989. My judgment is based on contact with the people, on student comments, and on departmental evaluations. The evaluations of the people who have come to us in the last 15 years are particularly enthusiastic.”

Professor Hevia was teaching one course this term. Next year he’ll be teaching and writing about his specialty in Chinese history at Chicago. Will UNC-CH be able to hire a new professor to teach Chinese history? Could the Yankees hire a shortstop if Derek Jeter left? No problem.

If UNC-CH had a bigger budget, it might be able to win more bidding wars against the likes of the University of Chicago, but that wouldn’t make it any better for students.