When Faculty Leave UNC, They Pack Their Grant Money

When Carolina lost 47 faculty members to raids from other universities last year, almost half of them took more than just their expertise. Millions of dollars in research grants walked out the door with them.

Twenty-two researchers who had been the principal investigators on their grant-funded projects had brought to Chapel Hill $49.4 million over the previous five years. Counting grant money on which the 22 were co-investigators, the total is $155.1 million.

That is government and private foundation money that comes to UNC on top of state allocations and gifts from donors. Carolina has been one of the best in the country at attracting grants and contracts — it took in $716 million in fiscal 2011 after receiving an all-time high $803 million the previous year. Fiscal 2011 marked the first time in at least 16 years that the amount had declined.

Of principal investigators, it generally can be said the grants wouldn’t have happened without them. Co-investigator status could be the same critical role in the research, but it isn’t always. It is standard practice in higher education for grant money to go where the professor goes.

The loss in grant money reflects a dismal year in the University’s ability to retain top faculty who are targets of other schools, many of them private. UNC made counter offers to almost all of the 47, Provost Bruce Carney said. Retention fluctuates year to year, but administrators are deeply worried that three years without salary raises — which has been one result of about $230 million lost to state budget cuts — has damaged UNC’s position. During those three years, Carolina has kept 32 of the 110 faculty members who were considering offers from others schools.

The University, Carney said, “is having twice as many fights and losing more of them. That’s unhealthy. It’s sapping the strength of the University.” And, he added, “Grants or no grants, they’re all really good people.”

UNC is able to re-allocate the salaries of those who left — except in the cases of some in the medical fields who took part of their pay from outside grants — but it is more likely to attract more junior faculty who could be years away from the experience level, and the grant-winning ability, that they’re replacing. “So it’s not an efficient business model,” Carney said. “It’s a loss.”

As the University awaits the UNC System Board of Governors’ discussions of its proposal to increase tuition, Carney said raising faculty salaries is the second priority for any new revenues. The first priority is to restore class sections lost to the budget cuts. UNC saw relatively little impact from the reduction in sections last fall, but that may take a bigger hit this spring. Figures are expected at the end of January showing any change in difficulty students are encountering in signing up for their needed credit hours.

Even with more money available from a tuition increase, UNC would need the N.C. General Assembly’s permission to raise salaries across the board. Currently it can raise salaries only in promotions and counteroffers for retention.

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