Even the Left Admits the Red-State Faculty “Brain-Drain” Never Happened

When Inside Higher Ed calls your bluff, the jig really is up.

Much “news” today consists of quick, divisive headlines with little regard for complexity or subtlety. A prominent example is the rapid firestorm that surrounded the conservative governments of Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia last year when some faculty loudly expressed their dissatisfaction with right-leaning higher-ed reforms. Having consulted an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) survey on the subject, media everywhere ran with the notion that red-state faculty would soon be fleeing, with many outlets printing articles claiming a “brain-drain” would soon occur.

The AAUP survey in question, conducted last fall, attempted to understand whether and why faculty members in the aforementioned states were considering leaving. An Inside Higher Ed article from earlier this year helpfully summarizes the news coverage with which the report was met:

Headlines in major publications quickly followed [the survey’s appearance]. The Chronicle of Higher Education published “In These Red States, Professors Are Eyeing the Exits”; the Tampa Bay Times led with “New laws in Florida and elsewhere are pushing faculty to leave, survey says”; and the Texas Tribune used “Texas’ political environment driving faculty to leave, survey finds.”

As IHE tersely notes, “Public skepticism of the survey was rare.”

Yet, now that the dust has settled, some outlets are being more cautious in their coverage of faculty sentiment in red states. According to the same Inside Higher Ed article, the New York Times’s most recent headline refers modestly to “some” Florida faculty who are dissatisfied with the state. Compared to the initial headlines, this editorial caution seems significant.

While the survey was meant to uncover how faculty make decisions about their careers, it failed to untangle a complex, multi-stranded web.The survey that caused all of this hubbub in the first place had 4,250 reported respondents. Of those, the majority were from Georgia and Texas only. Additionally, the survey was distributed mainly through email and social media, and faculty members were able to respond to it multiple times, thus shattering proper statistics-gathering norms.

Even with the best surveys, it is difficult to create a good, representative sample. This particular survey clearly fell short. This was especially true given that Georgia and North Carolina, with their similar population sizes, had greatly disparate respondent sizes. (Georgia had 1,450 respondents, and North Carolina had only 248.) While Florida has a higher population than Georgia and North Carolina combined, it had only 642 respondents.

Furthermore, while many media outlets referenced the eye-popping statistic that about 58 percent of survey respondents cited their “state’s broad political climate” among their top concerns, that figure was still slightly below a much more conventional faculty concern: salary.

What does all this mean? In reality, nothing has changed on Southern campuses. While the survey was meant to uncover how faculty make decisions about their careers, it failed to untangle a complex, multi-stranded web. Just as celebrities made crazy claims that they would move out of the United States if Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, so dissatisfied faculty are willing to exaggerate to a pollster. Many people, in all walks of life, have opinions about their political environments, but politics are not the only influence on their decisionmaking. They also have children, mortgages, communities, and a whole host of other factors to consider when it comes to uprooting their lives. One of the most important? The job market. After all, one can’t move to a new job if one can’t get hired.

The passage of time may provide illumination, but trying to track the decisionmaking process for faculty across an entire region will always be difficult and complex. Policymakers and their constituents should thus take media outrage with a grain of salt and wait for solid data to back up flashy claims. In this instance, the “brain-drain” appears never to have happened.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.