As Cuts Mount, UNC Faces Faculty Retention Hurdles

While UNC has shown success in preempting offers from other universities, recession-inspired budget cutting is making it more difficult for Carolina to convince faculty to stay once more lucrative opportunities arise. And at least one expert who studies the effects of shrinking state support for higher education says retention is likely to grow more challenging as university budgets linger on the chopping block.

UNC significantly ramped up its use of targeted salary raises in recent years to head off outside offers, extending pay boosts to 65 faculty members in 2012-13. Executive Vice Provost Ron Strauss credits that tactic with driving down the number of offers to 76 — its lowest point in four years.

While fewer offers came in, convincing sought-after faculty to stick around once another university made an overture proved to be more trying. Of the 76 who received offers in the past academic year, only 28 — or 37 percent — remained.

That makes last year the first time in nearly a decade that UNC’s “retention success rate” fell below 50 percent.

“What changed this year was when people got an outside offer, they were more likely to actually take it and leave than had happened in a number of previous years,” Strauss said. “That’s where the salary issues might have added up.”

Last year’s top raiders included Duke and Vanderbilt, private universities that benefit from larger endowments and exercise greater latitude in setting tuition rates. Ohio State, N.C. State, Indiana and Texas A&M universities were also among the top takers. Faculty also left to work for private businesses in the health and pharmaceutical fields.

Faculty departures present concerns not only because of the prospect of losing top talent; when they leave, some take millions of dollars in research grants with them.

Also, startup costs, which last year totaled about $25 million, make hiring more costly than upping faculty pay. While the UNC System earmarks a fund for counteroffers, Strauss said that pot frequently runs out of money and tapping it requires administrators to slog through a lengthy, complicated process.

“A lot of people who are getting offers are mid-career faculty who don’t qualify for that money,” Strauss said, noting that the fund is reserved for “very high-profile retentions.”

Strauss has advocated setting up a Carolina-specific fund so UNC can make timely counteroffers. But in today’s fiscal climate, the chances for creating such a resource are dim.

Since 2008-09, UNC has lost about $184 million in state funding, or about 34 percent of its state appropriations, according to Mike McFarland, director of University communications.

Saranna Thornton, who co-authored the American Association of University Professors’ most recent report on faculty salaries, released in April, said private schools see recruitment as a buyer’s market. Duke is in a particularly good poaching position because faculty need not worry about relocating households.

Moreover, faculty may be more apt to leave as mounting budget cuts make the future financial landscape of public higher education seem bleak. “We’re looking at extremely constrained budgets for as far as the eyes can see,” said Thornton, who also is a business and economics professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. “In that kind of situation, it makes sense: If you have the market credentials to leave, you start to look.”

While stagnant salaries play a role, Strauss emphasized that other factors also are at work. He said some faculty members decide to return to their homelands, move closer to family or assume senior administrative positions elsewhere. In those instances, counteroffers have little persuasive effect. Last year UNC lost faculty to universities in Canada, Germany and Australia.

And while news often focuses on the people UNC lost, Strauss pointed out that Carolina pursues talent as well, recruiting 21 senior faculty members in the past academic year. “We also go out looking for the best and brightest,” Strauss said. “There’s no question about it. We’re in the same dance as these other universities, and we’re good at it, too.”

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