Faculty Retention Plummets as Salaries Stay Frozen

Barely six months ago, UNC was ahead of the curve on hiring and retaining faculty in an extremely difficult economic climate. While hiring had slowed dramatically at many schools, Carolina was hiring at about 80 percent of normal and was winning most of its battles for professors who were entertaining offers from others.

By the end of the year, the University was looking at a 41 percent retention rate from raids from other schools in which it countered or could not afford to counter, one of the lowest rates in several years. The medical school was hit particularly hard — of 58 Carolina faculty members who presented offers from other universities and whom UNC tried to keep but couldn’t, 24 were from the medical school.

Most of those who leave for greener pastures are associate professors who have achieved tenure by proving their star power but who are young enough to be vulnerable to universities who will up the ante on salary, benefits and the other trappings of academia. Though there are many factors in a professor’s decision to leave, and retention seems to be cyclical – often rebounding shortly after a nosedive like this one — the inability to offer regular salary increases at UNC may be having a cumulative effect, said Provost Bruce Carney.

The state froze across-the-board salaries last year and again this year. “Prospects for salaries for this year and even next are pretty bleak,” Carney said.

Even researchers who are paid through outside grants that stipulate the ability to give periodical pay raises to themselves and their staffs are prohibited from doing so by an edict from the UNC System. Though the University must be careful — a grant that allows for raises but then is not renewed forces the school to take up the increased salary — it is lobbying to get that rule changed.

A recent memo from the UNC System says no raises are to be given except for promotions, increase of duties or in a retention case. The latter is typified by a written offer from another university.

And elite and well-funded private schools are not the only ones successfully attacking Carolina’s faculty. Carney listed the universities of Texas and Michigan as formidable raiders in the past year. “It comes down to which schools are impacted by the economic downturn,” he said. High tuitions such as Michigan’s, he said, are important factors because they are somewhat buffered from the bad economy as long as enrollment doesn’t slip.

Some faculty who entertain offers, the University doesn’t try to keep — about one-fourth of the total this year. The others fall into two categories: UNC counteroffers to try to hold onto them, or it simply doesn’t have the money to fight.

Carolina’s high-ranked Gillings School of Global Public Health generated 10 such competitions this year. Of the five counteroffers UNC made, it retained three; for the other five, it didn’t have the funds to counter.

Why the down year, Carney was asked.

“I can only speculate. It varies from year to year.” Once people begin to receive offers, “they begin to assess whether they are tightly bound here or not. Once you take that first step to weakening your bond, it becomes more difficult to keep you. I hate losing any of them.”

Another damaging impact of the state’s budget difficulties is the backlog of endowed professorships. UNC is waiting for the state to be able to fund its matching one-half of 55 privately endowed professorships; unlike salary increases, this is a one-time expense.

Faculty hiring woes are offset in part by a recent gift of $5 million from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and $500,000 from an anonymous donor, which are enabling the University to hire 18 junior faculty members — 14 in the College of Arts and Sciences, two in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, and one each in the schools of education and nursing.

But they are not permanently funded — after three years, the University must support them.

Administration positions are vulnerable to competing offers, too. In fact, Carney probably owes his job as provost to the University’s inability to come to terms with the candidates it targeted in a national search. The former chair of the physics and astronomy department has been at UNC since 1980.

UNC recently failed to close the deal with its finalist for dean of the dental school and went back to searching. Carney said fringe benefits was the issue with the dean finalist.

Tony Waldrop ’74, vice chancellor for research and economic development, recently announced he is leaving to be provost and vice president for academic affairs for the University of Central Florida. Carney acknowledged that Carolina probably will look inside for Waldrop’s successor; in better economic times, it would search at other schools.

Another big loss this year was Etta Pisano, the elite breast cancer and digital imaging researcher who left to become dean of the Medical University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine. Carney said another UNC faculty member was offered a medical school deanship this year, but Chapel Hill won that retention battle.

Ultimately, Carney said, results such as these raise the question of whether the University is positioned well to compete given the perennial limitations on state funds and its status as one of the best bargains in public education.

The UNC System expects Carolina — since 1998 the Kiplinger’s Public Finance best value in higher education — to stay in the bottom quartile of its 12 to 15 peer universities in tuition rate. “We’re lower than that,” Carney said.

“How is this all playing out to the students? We’re still attracting a very talented pool of students. Acceptance rates are high.”

With regard to retention, Carney said, “We’re just a place people come looking all the time.”

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