Why They Move

In tough budget times, departures of top faculty set off debates over how to retain and lure away the best -- especially at flagships that appear targets for raids.
May 31, 2011

When times get tough, top talent goes elsewhere.

That truism, while perhaps too simplistic to be applied widely, seems to be increasingly confronting many public universities, especially flagships, that have seen state support slashed or the political environment grow more tense and unpredictable. And, some say, the situation threatens to get worse.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is grappling with the departure of 78 faculty members this year (out of 110 who were wooed) -- more than 2.5 times the number who left the previous year. Perhaps not coincidentally, Chapel Hill is also facing its third straight year of declining state appropriations, a trend that has led to a pay freeze for faculty during the same period, said Holden Thorp, Chapel Hill’s chancellor.

“The three years of no raises is by far the dominant factor” contributing to the exodus of faculty members, Thorp said. (He cited as a lesser reason Chapel Hill’s inability, also because of financial constraints, to offer positions to spouses or partners.) When raises have been healthy, the administration has not had to wage as many battles to retain faculty. “In the years where we had decent-sized raises," he said, "you can see the correlation precisely.”

But recent migrations of talent from other universities illustrate how idiosyncratic such decisions can be. Every choice to uproot one’s family and career is, of course, unique. And, observers say, such moves are liable to reflect each faculty member's larger concerns about stability as much as his more personal concerns about workplace and collegiality, as well as his aspirations for the future.

At the same time, in tough budget years such as this one, it can be hard to distinguish between the individual move and the trend. When university faculty and administrators push for more state appropriations but, instead, see cuts, they sometimes blame the ensuing departures on bad budgets (or on unwanted policies). And deans and department heads at institutions that are in relatively secure shape often like to revel (usually off the record) in their plans to raid the talent at other universities. Experts say it can be difficult to parse what such departures mean, and to separate truth from imagination in the talk that accompanies such moves.

"I don’t think there are any generalizations about this," said Brian Leiter, John P. Wilson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago, who tracks on his blogs the job changes of law and philosophy professors.

Leiter described several past instances, including at Yale University and DePaul University, in which departments fractured over philosophical differences regarding the direction of the program, or faculty members left in anger over the choice of a new dean. Sometimes, he said, one or two stars in a top department at a prestigious institution can move elsewhere and trigger a larger-scale migration of talent. A herd mentality then sets in. "If too many of your good colleagues leave, then people start to think the boat is sinking," he said. "That’s probably the most common reason."

Academic stars can also be lured away. On Thursday, Rice University announced that it had landed three top scientists from the University of California at San Diego. Physicists Herbert Levine and José Onuchic and chemist Peter Wolynes are moving their laboratories to Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative.

Rice could afford to recruit all three scientists because of a $10 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Levine and Onuchic are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (Wolynes is a senior scientist there); they will continue their research at Rice and collaborate with cancer specialists at the Texas Medical Center.

When asked why they elected to move, all three cited the fact that Rice made strong offers to them individually and to their colleagues. Also important, they said, was the fact that they could expand the center's scope beyond its current focus on integrating physics and molecular and cell biology, and look more broadly at the nexus of physics and medicine.

The California budget, which could cut $500 million or more this year from UC campuses, played a different role in each scientist's thinking -- which suggests that, even among a small group of scholars leaving the exact same institution for another institution at the same time, the influence of external political and economic factors can vary, and the rationale not be easily isolated.

Onuchic said the budget crisis did not figure much in his reasoning. Wolynes, on the other hand, said it had certainly contributed to low morale at the university and to a general "sense of cautiousness" about doing new things, though he also struck a sanguine tone. "I am quite sure that when the economy improves, California universities will be able to continue on a strong path," he wrote in an e-mail.

Levine, however, pointed to the larger context, noting that Rice's offer, in combination with its ability to help find outside sources of support, seemed especially generous -- particularly because the prospects that a UC campus (where there have been cuts to administrative support and hiring freezes) could make a similar commitment were essentially nonexistent.

"Unfortunately for UC, private school endowments have recovered much more quickly than state budgets and this has led to a 'support gap,' " he wrote. "We have all decided that our research and training program can be much more effective at Rice than at UCSD (at least for the next 5-10 years)."

Concerns about just this sort of flight of top faculty prompted UC-Berkeley four years ago to seek out $113 million in private money to shore up its retention efforts by creating 100 endowed chairs.

And, while some observers described California's top researchers and professors as increasingly ripe for the plucking, David Leebron, Rice's president, said that he and his staff did not approach their recruiting with that in mind. "In our conversations, we didn't sit down and say, 'Let's look at California because they're vulnerable,' " he said. "For us it was much more a case of, 'Here's a team of people who would add extraordinarily to the university.' "

Besides, Leebron argued, scholars as accomplished as Levine, Onuchic and Wolynes are far less likely to leave because they wish to avoid a negative situation than they are to be attracted to something positive. "I think they move much more for the future than the present," said Leebron, while conceding that a negative situation can serve to repel some faculty.

"Whenever you create insecurity about the future, you enhance people's desire for mobility," he said. Uncertainty can be about more than money; it also can surround the state's larger commitment to a university, which is cast in doubt "when people create insecurity about the value of an institution and the value of research."

Wisconsin's declining commitment to its flagship was a factor in the decision of historian Jeremi Suri to leave the University of Wisconsin at Madison this August. While some accounts had suggested that Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill and the showdown earlier this year over collective bargaining rights had played a key role in his departure, Suri told Inside Higher Ed that it was more a case of the larger political context growing increasingly unpleasant over his 10 years there.

"With each successive year the university becomes more and more of a target for politicians who are looking for an easy way to take potshots at overpaid and easy-living Madisonians," Suri said. “This is an old story that’s getting worse. If it was an old story getting better, it’d be different." In more practical terms, Suri said that successive cuts to Madison's budget have meant that he has had to scramble every September to find money for graduate assistants.

Suri is departing Madison for the University of Texas at Austin, which is weathering its own controversies and conflicts between the campus and the statehouse. Suri said he was well aware of the situation there, but added that the schools at Austin at which he'll have a joint appointment -- the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law -- have endowments that are healthy enough to insulate him from political interference.

"I don’t philosophically and ethically like this position," he said. "We’re entering a world where those of us who want to do research at a public university for the long term with graduate students will need to be in an environment with a large amount of endowment money."

While Randy L. Diehl, dean of Austin's College of Liberal Arts, celebrated landing Suri, he acknowledged that the political context in Texas might give candidates some pause (and, he said, it has done so for some current faculty as well).

"I am concerned about possible reputational damage," he said, referring to the metrics gathered by the UT state system, and published widely in the state and local press, that aimed to quantify productivity of faculty. A related set of "breakthrough solutions" promoted by a conservative think tank with ties to Governor Rick Perry and several regents also appears to many in academe to devalue the role of research. But Diehl said he was heartened that the system's chancellor recently laid out an agenda that strongly supported research and its importance to teaching -- and the chancellor received a unanimous vote of confidence from the regents.

Still, Diehl said he knows what it's like to be on the other side of a migration. Not long ago, he said, two top economics professors left for, of all places, Madison. Diehl said that one of them had told him that the then still-emerging issues with the regents played a role in his decision to leave.

Diehl feared the departures signaled that the economics department was at risk of imploding. "A department needs a certain critical mass," he said, not just in numbers but also in quality. "If the feeling is it’s a sinking ship, the talent will go elsewhere, especially in economics where there's a robust job market. We had to act decisively to stanch the bleeding."

He set about persuading Sandra E. Black, who was then a visiting professor from the University of California at Los Angeles, to stay. She agreed and, as a top labor economist, created enough of a buzz, Diehl said, that Austin was able to hire six more junior faculty. It was, he said, a case of a good offense serving as the best defense against a migration.

Thorp, of Chapel Hill, said he and his administration had tried an alternative method to keep faculty happy (though he said his institution, like others, will simply have to find money for raises for faculty). Recently, Chapel Hill raised private money that was targeted to hire 18 junior faculty members. "In this difficult environment where the university is taking cuts and there aren’t salary increases, having as many searches for junior faculty as you can have is a great way to hold morale together," he said. Hiring junior faculty, he continued, helped to "create the feeling that things are still moving forward here."

The continuing model, many noted, is an old one, but it risks further hardening the institutional caste system in higher education. Elite privates will be able to outbid top-tier flagship publics for talent, and even those universities will have to rely increasingly on private money in order to weather political and budgetary uncertainty.

Suri said that others like him would be looking increasingly to work at what he called a hybrid public: a university that functions in the public interest and (traditionally) with public support, though with enough private money to insulate itself from political influence.

"I think the bad thing right now is that, to the extent that there’s a pattern of exodus, it’ll go from state to private schools," said Leiter of Chicago. "We’ll see the continued evisceration of public universities."


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