Paying the Profs – How Much is Enough?

Is the University of North Carolina system experiencing a “brain drain” because of inadequate faculty compensation?

The UNC administration seems to think so. In 2006, the UNC Board of Governors approved a plan proposed by UNC President Erskine Bowles to raise UNC faculty pay to the 80th percentile among peer institutions. (Why the 80th percentile and not 75th or 85th or some other figure was not made clear.) This plan would also provide merit-based pay increases of four percent per year and $2 million to match private funds for distinguished professorships. To pay for all of that, Bowles has asked the legislature for an additional $87.8 million in fiscal years 2008-09.

“If we’re going to be competitive, we’ve got to bring these great brains into the university – and keep them here once we get them here,” Bowles has said.

Is it true, however, that the salaries and benefits packages in the UNC system schools and not competitive? And if so, is there any evidence that the quality of UNC campuses is suffering?

A new report by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy demonstrates that the warnings of “brain drain” are unfounded. The report, written by John Locke Foundation Policy Analyst Jon Sanders, compares the actual compensation of faculty, adjusted for the cost of living, with compensation at schools considered peers of the UNC campuses. It compares faculty within their rank at their institution — full professor, associate professor or assistant professor – with professors of similar rank at other colleges and universities within the same Carnegie classification (research university, liberal arts college, etc.)

The report’s findings do not show that UNC system compensation is generally uncompetitive.

For example, compensation at UNC-Chapel Hill for full professors is well above the average and close to the desired 80th percentile; the school ranks 23rd out of 91 peer institutions, many of which are private schools. UNC-Chapel Hill’s compensation rate for associate and assistant faculty exceeds the average at peer institutions for those faculty ranks.

Several UNC institutions achieved the 80th percentile in at least one of the three faculty levels the report analyzed: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Fayetteville State University, NC Central, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Pembroke, Western Carolina and Winston-Salem State.

Of the 45 UNC faculty compensation rates examined in the report, only seven were below their peer averages. Those were full and associate professors at Elizabeth City State, full and associate professors at NC A&T State, full professors at NC State and all three faculty ranks at UNC-Asheville.

The study focuses only on numbers adjusted for cost of living, but anecdotal evidence supports its findings. Heads of department heads throughout the UNC system report that whenever they post a vacancy and advertise for people to fill it, they receive a huge number of applications from qualified people. All organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, have to deal with the problem of personnel turnover. They have a compensation problem if they can’t attract competent people to replace those who for whatever reason leave. The UNC schools don’t have any trouble hiring good new professors when current ones leave. The dreaded “brain drain” doesn’t exist.

Moreover, once applicants accept jobs in the UNC system, they tend to keep them. According to a 2004 UNC-Chapel Hill report, “Faculty Retention at UNC: A Preliminary Report,” nearly 90 percent of faculty are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to remain at the university. UNC is regarded as a good place to work and the compensation is quite sufficient to attract and retain people.

It is possible, of course, that there may be isolated instances where departments have trouble hiring professors with the capabilities they need. It might be that, for example, Elizabeth City State isn’t able to hire a good chemistry professor at the salary offered. The sensible solution would be to direct enough money to solve that problem, not to institute an across-the-board increase in compensation.

Attempting to put UNC faculty compensation rates at the 80th percentile of peer institutions would represent a very high expense for North Carolina taxpayers, and one that doesn’t appear to be justified by the evidence. Simply because well-financed private schools such as Duke University, Wake Forest University and Davidson College are able to pay their professors somewhat more does not mean that the taxpayers of the state must bear the burden of playing catch up.

Instead of worrying about a mythical “brain drain,” the focus of public-policy debate should remain on how best the UNC institutions can impart education to their students. Policymakers should center their attention on the quality of instruction. Raising pay across-the-board for tenured professors who often teach only one or two classes while allowing teaching assistants continue to shoulder a growing proportion of the teaching workload is not a responsible course of action.

Before legislators appropriate money to solve the “brain drain” problem, they should first ask whether there really is such a problem in the UNC system. The evidence shows that this is about as much a problem as unicorns disrupting classes.