UNC raided for faculty talent

The budget crisis means the school can't repel raids from richer universities.

Staff WriterJune 9, 2010 

  • 53

    UNC faculty members recruited away this year

    30%

    Success rate retaining faculty

    $85,000

    Yasmin Saikia's salary as a UNC associate professor in history

    $150,000

    Saikia's new salary as an

    Arizona State full professor

    $175 million

    Cuts to system proposed in House budget

  • The state House and Senate both recommend deep cuts to the UNC system, with the House budget plan by far the harsher.

    It recommends the system reduce its spending next year by $175 million. That's on top of a $50 million planned cut approved a year ago. Taken together, that's about $225 million in cuts, which UNC System President Erskine Bowles has said would result in the loss of 1,700 positions.

    Half of those would be faculty positions, Bowles has said. They wouldn't all be filled positions, however. Universities routinely hold vacancies open to provide a cushion.

— With UNC-Chapel Hill hamstrung by budget constraints, more professors are leaving for higher pay elsewhere, often taking research projects or established programs with them.

The school has lost 53 of 77 faculty members recruited by universities during the last academic year, a retention rate of about 30 percent. Most years, it wins 55 percent to 60 percent of its recruiting battles by boosting pay or adding resources such as a coveted piece of lab equipment.

The losses are a gut shot for one of the nation's top public institutions, where leaders take pride in recruiting and retaining faculty members who might otherwise end up at elite private institutions. But this year, deep-pocketed elites such as Yale and Cornell are having their pick of Chapel Hill faculty.

And it's not just the Ivies. Michigan and Virginia have also lured faculty from Chapel Hill this year. Arizona State, a public university nowhere near Carolina's equal if you go by magazine rankings, has taken the university's sole professor of South Asian history.

"It's a thorny problem," said UNC-CH Provost Bruce Carney, the school's chief academic officer. "We can rarely meet the offer. And these are among the best people. These are the people you don't want to lose."

At N.C. State, budget constraints haven't yet resulted in a faculty exodus, said Warwick Arden, NCSU's provost. But deep cuts last year in resources and support staff have led faculty to shoulder a greater teaching burden, and Arden thinks many are watching this summer's state budget deliberations closely.

Both the state House and Senate have recommended significant cuts to public higher education this year, with the House plan most severe. If adopted, it would cut $175 million from the UNC system's budget and force the elimination of an estimated 1,700 faculty and staff positions, UNC system officials have said. Last year, the UNC system eliminated more than 900 positions across the university system, including hundreds at NCSU and UNC-CH.

"Folks are very sensitive to it," Arden said. "There's no doubt we're making it more difficult for folks to get their work done. I think if things get worse in the next six months, we may see more faculty losses."

UNC-CH spends about $1 million a year boosting pay for faculty it persuades to stay. Doing so can be tricky because state employees can't get pay raises now. And under state guidelines, universities can't increase a salary with privately donated money unless it is specifically to counter a formal job offer from another university.

Why they leave

Yasmin Saikia came to UNC-CH a decade ago to start a South Asia history program. She was told the department would grow, but 10 years later she's still the only faculty member in that discipline. So when Arizona State offered her a promotion to full professor, a $25,000-a-year research fund and nearly doubled her pay - to $150,000 a year - she couldn't find a reason to stay. UNC, where she was earning $85,000, offered a $10,000 raise and a $5,000 research fund.

"The money thing is honestly secondary, because I have a life, a house, friends here, and you can't put a price tag on that," said Saikia, 45, an associate professor. "But it was about what they were willing to do to keep me. It didn't even compare."

Saikia was one of four international history scholars to leave UNC's history department, which has tried in recent years to beef up its global offerings. Though UNC provided the department the resources to try to retain those scholars, they each left for universities with stellar history programs in their respective disciplines, said Fitz Brundage, the interim chair of UNC's history department. With four new vacancies, the department will be lucky to make two new hires next year under budget constraints, Brundage said.

"We're trying to build up our [global] strength and don't have the standing yet," he said. "We're running in place."

Taxpayers account for just 20 percent to 25 percent of the total budgets at state universities in North Carolina.

Private money fills in

One way Carolina has found to combat raids is through private fundraising. For current faculty, the private money can be used only on counteroffers, but it can give the university an edge with new hires. That's the thought behind a recent $5 million gift from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust that, along with a $500,000 gift from an anonymous donor, will let UNC-CH hire 18 new junior faculty members.

It would be tough for any new hire to fill the void Etta Pisano is about to leave at UNC's medical school. The noted breast cancer researcher, at Carolina since 1989, is leaving to become dean of the medical school at the Medical University of South Carolina. Pisano sensed she'd hit a ceiling at UNC-CH, and the South Carolina position was inviting. Campus officials knew they couldn't keep her, Carney said.

"I've been very happy here for all these years," said Pisano, 52. "It was just the normal career path."

Her departure will be a big blow. Pisano has pioneered the use of digital mammography to detect breast cancer in younger women. Her work led to her entry, earlier this year, into the prestigious Institute of Medicine. She's taking three Chapel Hill colleagues with her and plans to do research even while leading the Charleston-based medical school. If her research leads to more innovation in breast cancer detection, UNC-CH won't benefit.

"I'm definitely taking projects with me to South Carolina that would have happened here," she said.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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