Faculty Are Not Fleeing the South

A widely shared AAUP survey is rank nonsense.

Last week, American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapters and faculty unions in four Southern states released the results of a survey purporting to reinforce the notion of a higher-ed “brain drain” prompted by state legislative action and the generally conservative political climates in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. As the headline of one article based on the survey put it, “In These Red States, Faculty Are Eyeing the Exits.”

I’m not convinced. And I don’t think state legislators will be either, despite the hopes of the sponsoring organizations.

In the first place, unlike the most credible surveys, this one sought respondents through emails and social-media posts, not by pursuing and constructing a random sample of faculty. We can surmise that those likeliest to respond are the organizations’ own activists, who are at the forefront of the resistance to their state legislatures. How representative such responses are of faculty opinion as a whole, we simply can’t know.

What’s more, the response numbers are not proportional to state faculty populations. Texas and Georgia respondents comprise roughly 75 percent of the total, while numbers in Florida (642) and North Carolina (248) are so small as to make even barely credible claims about faculty opinion in those states impossible.

In a notable irony, North Carolina was itself a top-four most desired destination for disaffected faculty.Leaving aside these insurmountable barriers to credibility, what does the survey purport to tell us? Well, the most frequent complaints among those faculty who may pursue employment in other states (about 30 percent of the respondents) are that salaries are too low and that their state is, in effect, too red. About 67 percent of the entire pool wouldn’t recommend employment in their state to colleagues elsewhere. Note that this implies that roughly one-third of the respondents are happy with their current positions, have no plans to leave, and would recommend their state to colleagues elsewhere.

Given respondents’ impressions that faculty applicant pools are smaller and weaker, as well as their claims that some candidates have turned down job offers, the implication of the survey is that those who leave red states for bluer pastures will likely be replaced by less-qualified faculty. The red states would thus be worse off than before.

Again, I’m not convinced. Might not the uncertain future of American higher education as a whole have something to do with these conditions? Are applicant pools in California, New York, and Massachusetts—the favorite destinations of the poll’s malcontents—larger and stronger? I would be shocked if they were. Furthermore, in a notable irony, North Carolina was itself a top-four most desired destination for disaffected faculty in the surveyed states. What does that tidbit do to AAUP’s narrative?

My advice to state legislators: Pay this survey no heed. Your state’s students will be taught by qualified faculty, and the researchers who work at your flagships will be there so long as the grants continue to flow. And if a few malcontents successfully clamber aboard those sinking northeastern and Pacific-coast ships, they’ll be replaced by others who want to enjoy Athens, Austin, Chapel Hill, and Gainesville.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, where he has taught since 1985.