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Gordon Gee is having an identity crisis.

Once the proud hunter of faculty recruits, the Ohio State University president now finds himself playing defense.

“Now I feel like I’m being stalked rather than stalking,” says Gee, who had a reputation for luring star professors to Vanderbilt University when he was president there.

Gee says retention is a greater challenge now that he's at a public university, but his "stalking" days aren’t over for good. A self-described “predatory” recruiter, Gee still plays some offense as well. In a blunt admission that few university presidents will make publicly, Gee affirms that he’s now gunning for faculty in cash-strapped states.

“The answer is yes,” Gee says with a laugh. “You want a clear answer: The answer is yes. No dancing on that one, my friend.”

And so opens a new front in the faculty recruitment wars. While the stagnant economy has hit some universities hard, others -- including Ohio State -- have managed to avoid major budget cuts. That’s created an opportunity for the “haves” to poach faculty from the “have nots,” and some universities stand to lose a lot in this latest skirmish.

Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, sees trouble on the horizon. There have been 15 resignations at South Florida this year, about twice as many as the university normally sees by summer, Smith says.

The State of Florida has been crippled by the housing crisis, and that’s translated into major cuts for universities. As such, programs are shutting down, raises are stagnant and layoffs are becoming a way of life. In such an environment, “under the table” recruiting from more well-off states is sure to happen, Smith says.

“It’s considered dirty pool, I guess,” he says. “But it’s kind of an irony because in the business world it’s pretty commonplace.”

Concern about the “brain drain” in Florida has reached such a level that the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, recently sent inquiries to all universities asking how many faculty they’ve lost. Smith says he thinks the extent of the problem, however, probably won’t be fully appreciable until well into next year.

“This is not when we’re going to see the outflow,” says Smith, noting that frustrated faculty will probably put themselves on the market in the coming year.

Some Relish Poaching

For some university leaders, faculty poaching is something of a celebrated blood sport. Take Daniele Struppa, the chancellor of Chapman University, in Southern California. As a former dean at George Mason University, Struppa has used his contacts to raid his former employer of some of the very faculty he recruited during his days as dean there. On Struppa’s watch, nearly 15 George Mason faculty have moved from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., across the country to Chapman.

“I heard through the grapevine that they’re not happy this is happening,” Struppa says of his former colleagues. “But faculty vote with their feet.”

Struppa's recruitment effort, which has happened over roughly the last two years, is less about exploiting economic conditions and more about tapping personal relationships. Struppa called up his old friends at George Mason, presenting Chapman as a land of opportunity that's on the cusp of great things.

In pitching Chapman, Struppa acknowledges that it's an institution quite different from George Mason. With more than 30,000 students, Mason has an undergraduate population about five times the size of Chapman’s. Mason also boasts a significantly more established research enterprise.

For Chapman, the spoils of the recruitment wars include Vernon Smith, a Nobel Laureate who came to Orange, Calif., with three other economists from George Mason. To pull in faculty like Smith, Struppa had to sweeten the pot. He offered the professors a chance to help design a brand new facility for experimental economics, starting his negotiations by asking for their “dream plan.”

Wisconsin Builds War Chest

In response to raiding efforts, some universities have built up war chests to retain faculty. Last year, the University of California at Berkeley used a $113 million grant to help retain faculty. Wisconsin's Legislature also put money toward keeping faculty in the state, appropriating $10 million last year to help retain faculty across the University of Wisconsin System.

The infusion of funds in Wisconsin came after more than 115 faculty members reported receiving outside offers in 2006, which was the highest number of offers reported in 20 years, the Associated Press reported.

The legislative funds helped the university's flagship campus at Madison retain Kenneth Goldstein, a political science professor who was getting itchy feet and being actively courted by at least one other institution in California.

Goldstein is just the sort of faculty member universities worry about losing. He’s the head of Wisconsin’s advertising project, which studies the impact of political advertising. Goldstein’s field is hot, and he’s become an ambassador of the university as a go-to source for national news media covering campaigns.

Goldstein also has an intangible quality: charisma. A slender man of 43 -- his wife is a model and commercial actress -- Goldstein sports thin brown sideburns and a Palm Beach tan. It’s of little wonder that Wisconsin fund raisers like to dispatch Goldstein to talk politics with alumni, who often end up later becoming donors.

Goldstein says he was happy at Wisconsin, but he knew last year that he had a “window” to go on the job market. As a father of two children, 8 and 10 years old, Goldstein wanted to advance his career with a move before his children were much older.

When administrators heard Goldstein might be looking elsewhere, they stepped up with rewards from the state-funded pot. Ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, the retention bonuses are just enough to let faculty know they’re valued, Goldstein says.

“Everyone wants to be loved, right? And academics are as insecure as everyone else,” he says.

The competition for Wisconsin faculty, however, remains fierce. And Goldstein says he’s not “Pollyannaish” about the efforts other institutions are making to lure faculty, including offers that go beyond salary boosts. Indeed, private universities not only tempt faculty with bigger salaries, they often offer lighter teaching loads that public institutions simply can’t provide.

“What the privates are doing with teaching loads, we can’t do financially and morally,” says Goldstein, citing the unique teaching missions of public universities.

Showdown in the Desert

When the subject of faculty poaching comes up, it’s not uncommon to hear Michael Crow’s name. The president of Arizona State University is known for personally getting involved in faculty recruiting, and he says he pitches Arizona as a place with few boundaries between programs where cross-disciplinary work is encouraged and expected.

“We tend to identify faculty that we think can prosper in that kind of environment, and then we pursue them aggressively,” he says. “We also move quickly as opposed to slowly.”

But the state of Arizona has fallen on hard economic times, and retention may prove a challenge if funds for higher education continue to dry up in the desert.

Thomas Baldwin, a prominent biochemist who recently left the University of Arizona, says he was tired of waiting for the state to invest in the university system. So when the University of California at Riverside came knocking, Baldwin was ready to listen to their offer.

“You reach a point where you say ‘oh my God, why am I wasting my time here,’ ” he says.

On July 1, Baldwin started his new job as dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at Riverside. While the deanship is a promotion from his position as a department chair, Baldwin says he would have been perfectly happy in his role at Arizona if it weren’t for ongoing budgetary restraints. In his nine years at Arizona, Baldwin says he saw his budget cut seven times.

“I think that had it not been for the budget cuts, I probably would not even have responded to the request that I apply,” he said. “So anytime someone in my position moves, I think it’s very seldom a matter of the grass looking greener on the other side. There’s got to be a push as well as a pull.”

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