You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A photo illustration of the governors of Florida and Texas speaking and pointing, superimposed over outlines of their states.

Texas and Florida are among the states facing an alleged faculty brain drain.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images


Florida’s governor, seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has pushed his state and its education system further and further to the right. Texas has banned diversity, equity and inclusion programs from public universities. Some professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have expressed fears that Republicans are increasingly meddling in their prestigious institution. And the University System of Georgia is on the American Association of University Professors’ censure list for weakening tenure protections.

News articles and opinion pieces have raised alarms that significant numbers of faculty members are fleeing, or considering fleeing, jobs in states where universities face increasing right-wing pressure in favor of jobs in states where they don’t—fueling a Southern brain drain.

Throughout 2023, the AAUP condemned Republican political interference in higher education, especially in Florida. Its December investigative report into threats to academic freedom, tenure and shared governance in Florida public universities described a statewide faculty “exodus.”

“Everyone with whom the committee spoke reported the same thing: faculty are leaving Florida, and they are doing so because the conditions of their employment are becoming insufferable and they can no longer do their jobs,” stated the report, whose authors said it’s based on interviews with more than 65 people, including faculty members, students, trustees and others. “More and more faculty members are, in effect, voting with their feet. Many are leaving the state, often to take positions at less prestigious institutions with more onerous teaching loads; still others are being recruited away from Florida.”

The report also referenced survey results from last fall, when the United Faculty of Florida union, the Texas Faculty Association and AAUP chapters in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia combined forces to ask faculty members whether they were considering leaving, and why.

The organizations distributed the survey through email and social media. The results from the more than 4,250 faculty members who responded, two-thirds of them tenured, weren’t statistically representative of the feelings of faculty members in those states, and individual faculty members could fill it out multiple times.

“Our data on faculty is notoriously bad.”

—Kevin McClure, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Nevertheless, some of the organizations sent out news releases with concerning numbers. About a third of respondents were “actively considering interviewing elsewhere in the coming year,” they noted, and a fifth had interviewed in other states since 2021. (North Carolina, interestingly enough, was also among the most desired states to flee to.)

Of those who were mulling an exit, about 58 percent cited their “state’s broad political climate” among their top concerns. That was less than a percentage point behind the most cited, more traditional concern: salary.

Headlines in major publications quickly followed. The Chronicle of Higher Education published “In These Red States, Professors Are Eyeing the Exits;” The Tampa Bay Times led with “New laws in Florida and elsewhere are pushing faculty to leave, survey says”; and The Texas Tribune used “Texas’ political environment driving faculty to leave, survey finds.”

Public skepticism of the survey was rare, but not nonexistent.

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a North Carolina–based, conservative-leaning think tank, published a Georgia professor’s opinion piece noting that only 248 of the 4,250 respondents were from North Carolina. That state is only slightly less populous than Georgia, which provided 1,450 respondents—over five times as many. And only 642 of the 4,250 respondents were from Florida, which has the second-highest overall population of the four states examined.

Nevertheless, articles echoing the ones cited by the survey have continued, making sweeping claims. Last month, The New York Times published a story that didn’t cite the AAUP survey and was a bit more hesitant with its current headline, which says “Some” Florida faculty members “Have Had Enough.”

In its subheadline, the article said “liberal-leaning” faculty members were “leaving coveted jobs with tenure” and mentioned “signs” that recruitment is harder. The story said “departure rates have ticked upward” at several institutions, but the only statistic it cited was a 2.3-percentage-point increase at the University of Florida from 2021 to 2023.

But there’s a dearth of data on how many faculty members are actually leaving and where they’re going. The impact of the pandemic-era Great Resignation on faculty departures also muddies data from recent years. Glenn Colby, senior researcher at the American Association of University Professors, noted many institutions implemented early retirement programs, possibly inflating the numbers of departures.

Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said that, nationwide, “our data on faculty is notoriously bad.”

Barrett Taylor, a professor of counseling and higher education at the University of North Texas, said he thinks the problem is that “there’s not really a national data set at the level of individual faculty members and so, right now, narratives are what’s out there.” He said, “With the current data we have, it’s very difficult to adjudicate between these competing narratives.”

“Faculty members are not tagged like migrating geese.”

—Brendan Cantwell, Michigan State University

The Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina statewide university systems didn’t provide Inside Higher Ed much data on their faculty retention, or any survey data for why faculty members may be leaving.

A University of Florida spokeswoman wrote in an email that UF’s faculty turnover rate is still below the 10.57 percent national average. (The source she cited, CUPA-HR, said on its website that in 2022–23, overall turnover for full-time faculty was 7 percent for those on the tenure track and 11 percent for non–tenure track.) And in posts on X criticizing the New York Times story, UF president Ben Sasse—a former Republican U.S. senator—wrote, “Over the last seven years, with the exception of one year during COVID, UF has annually hired far more faculty than have left.”

A Florida State University spokeswoman wrote in an email that “we’ve seen a slight, but not dramatic, rise in faculty departures, and perhaps not greater than expected in these post-pandemic times. However, the university’s number of new hires is well above the number of replacements for those who have departed.” She added that FSU has found “that faculty leave for multiple and complex reasons rather than a single issue. We do not have a breakdown of their reasons.”

A UNC system spokesman wrote in an email that faculty turnover in that system—counting “voluntary separation” but not retirements and other kinds of departures—was 3.9 percent in both fiscal years 2022 and 2023. He said the system doesn’t have data on why faculty members left or where they went.

Experts say it’s simply too soon to know how relatively recent state politics—such as Ron DeSantis’s reign as Florida’s governor and laws passed in 2023—are influencing faculty members’ decisions to leave or stay, or whether professors are leaving for universities in bluer states or quitting academe entirely.

“Faculty members are not tagged like migrating geese,” said Brendan Cantwell, a Michigan State University professor of higher, adult and lifelong education.

He said he’d be “100 percent not surprised if turnover is higher in Florida and Texas than the national baseline.” Even so, he said, “I don’t think we would ever really expect a mass exodus,” at least not in the popular notion of that term. He said there’s not much turnover in the academic job market, and “people’s lives are just too entrenched” in the places they choose to live.

“Faculty members are people, right? And their children are on soccer teams, their partners have jobs that they like, they’re underwater on their mortgages—any of those normal things … their family lives in the state, whatever,” Cantwell said.

Paul Rubin, an assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah, said many faculty members grew up in these states and feel a personal responsibility to stay.

McClure said, “I think we probably shouldn’t use faculty turnover numbers as necessarily a good metric of how faculty feel about, you know, the politics of their state and what it means for their work.”

New College of Florida became the epicenter of the faculty-fleeing narrative after DeSantis stacked the college’s board with conservative members, who quickly began shaping the institution to fit their vision. The Tampa Bay Times reported that over a third of New College faculty members, 36 people, didn’t return for fall 2023.

But that’s just one small college within the vast Florida public college and university network. Amy Reid, a New College French professor who directs its gender studies program, said that “in recent conversations with colleagues at other institutions, everyone had anecdotal information about people leaving” and about fewer applicants for positions and trouble filling jobs.

She said she hopes the coming months bring more data about the “consequences of Florida’s recent legislative initiatives to … rewrite the rules of higher education.”

Cantwell said there just isn’t good systematic information on faculty members that provides a “comprehensive view.” As a result, he said, “I think the social media narratives really kind of drive perceptions.”

“I think people want really clear answers, and it’s going to take time to be able to get at the sort of answers that we like,” he said.

Only the Famed, or Privileged, Can Run?

The fleeing-faculty narrative also clashes with another one: the academic job market is terrible.

Facing financial challenges from enrollment losses, declining state funding and other issues, universities have been laying off faculty members, including those with tenure. And, for decades, higher education institutions have been increasing their shares of contingent faculty members compared to tenured and tenure-track professors.

So where can faculty members who want stable jobs flee to?

“The job market is awful in almost every discipline, in almost every area,” Utah’s Rubin said. He said that’s especially true for those wanting to work at Carnegie-classified Research 1 institutions, which include UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Florida, Texas A&M, the University of Georgia and multiple others in those four states diagnosed with alleged brain drain.

The fleeing-faculty narrative is partly fed by publicly announced departures from certain kinds of faculty members: high-profile professors who can leave for prestigious jobs in other states and who oppose the conservative policies.

The handful of Florida professors quoted in the December New York Times story about professors leaving over politics included a couple fleeing for non–Ivy League universities. But the others were leaving the University of Florida for Cornell University, Florida State University for the Cornell-affiliated Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and UF for Howard University, which is among the most respected historically Black universities in the country.

“Faculty mobility always is uneven,” Cantwell said. He said professors in certain disciplines, with prizes and publication or grant records, “are almost always highly visible faculty.”

“These people are almost always more mobile, more able to find jobs than the typical faculty member,” he said. So anecdotal evidence may show that those prominent faculty, who have previously had opportunities elsewhere, are more likely now to take them, he said.

The academic job market is bifurcated, Rubin said. There’s the market for new Ph.D. holders, and then there’s the one for faculty members who are established and raking in research dollars. He said that, generally, “the people who are most likely to move are the ones in the latter category … it’s those individuals who are highly sought after.”

McClure, of UNC Wilmington, said more established faculty members may actually be less likely to leave. He said, “Faculty mobility is often pretty limited; certainly the longer that you’re in your career, the more advanced you are, the more complicated it can be to move.”

He said these professors may have already set up labs or started projects at their universities, and other institutions may not want to hire faculty members at their level. He said this struggle might not apply to the “star” professors, “but there’s another 80 to 90 percent of us who are still doing the work.”

The biggest retention struggle mentioned in the New York Times article was a 30 percent faculty turnover rate specifically at UF’s law school. But that number, which the Times article doesn’t otherwise explain, doesn’t necessarily mean a mass exodus from UF. A spokesperson for the law school told Inside Higher Ed in an email that “About half (10) of the departures were retirements and about half (10) were faculty taking promotional opportunities—including former Dean Laura Rosenbury, who is now the president of Barnard College. UF Law’s turnover has otherwise been consistent and under the national average.”

The current narrative about faculty fleeing red states has a lineage. While state legislatures have launched multiple, mostly failed attacks on tenure over the past year, Wisconsin, under then governor Scott Walker, pioneered them nearly a decade ago. That led to a raft of news articles about how the state’s brightest faculty members were leaving and how the University of Wisconsin at Madison was spending millions to try to retain them.

In 2015, Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature removed tenure from state law, allowing university leaders to chip away at it. Some prominent professors announced their departures.

“Initially, the folks that left immediately were the ones who had significant research dollars, were nationally known, etc., and then it became the question of down the road for new hires, which individuals were interested in pursuing those positions,” Rubin said. Ultimately, though, he said the “University of Wisconsin in Madison barely felt much.”

“It’s going to be a destination regardless of what you do,” he said.

Black or Latino faculty members, who are less likely to come from privileged backgrounds and less likely to work at R-1 institutions than white professors, may be more likely to remain in states where Republican policies are restricting diversity efforts. Rubin noted that these Southern states have relatively higher populations of individuals of color, and many HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions.

“Effectively, you’re sort of leaving the individuals that may be most impacted by these policies,” he said. He also said a potential rationale for these conservative policies is to try “to remove the people who can speak up.”

Chris Rufo, the right-wing activist and DEI opponent who now sits on New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees, posted on social media in response to the New York Times article that “Woke out-migration is a benefit, not a cost, of good academic policies.”

Could these states easily refill vacant positions with new professors? It’s unclear at this point, but these same states’ raw population growth does lead the nation.

Census estimates are that, in 2023, Texas added around 473,000 people, the most of any state. No. 2 was Florida, which added 365,000, and No. 3 was North Carolina, which added 140,000. Georgia was No. 4, with 116,000 new residents. The Census reported that Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia represented 93 percent of national population growth in 2022 and 67 percent in 2023.

But while some professors want to leave their states in response to right-wing policies, others prefer to stay in conservative states, where they can counter the prevailing political talking points, Rubin said. He said minority professors in these states, or faculty members more broadly who teach subjects that conservatives oppose, may feel they can make a bigger difference in say, Utah, where he works, than in New Jersey.

“For many faculty members, it isn’t combating the states, it’s serving the students,” he said.

Next Story

Written By

More from Tenure