With state support for higher education sagging or growing slowly in parts of the country, and with private institutions doing more and more to lure top professors, faculty retention has become a hot-button issue for the most competitive public universities.
In an effort to keep some of its top talent and attract others, the University of California at Berkeley announced this week  that the largest private gift in its history -- a $113 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation -- will go toward creating 100 endowed chairs. Through a matching program, the university hopes private gifts can bring the total to $220 million in new endowments.
"This gift is an extraordinary vote of confidence in the contribution that UC Berkeley and all great public universities make to society," Robert J. Birgeneau, Berkeley's chancellor, said in a statement. "It is a recognition that public universities can and must compete with the best private universities and can only do so through a partnership between public funding and private philanthropy."
While Berkeley's state funding, which represents roughly a third of the university's annual budget, has been "relatively robust and constant when adjusted for inflation," according to officials, the cost of running a major research university has risen in recent years. And Berkeley is competing for professors with institutions that have far greater resources to offer. Birgeneau, in an interview, said private institutions are often at an advantage because of traditionally large endowments.
For instance, in the 2006 fiscal year, Berkeley's endowment was nearly $2.5 billion. By comparison, in the same period, the endowment at Stanford University, the elite private institution in Berkeley's backyard, was $14 billion. Berkeley also falls short on faculty salaries. The most recent salary data  from the American Association of University Professors found that Berkeley was third in terms of average salary at public universities for full professors, and Stanford was third on the list of private universities. But Berkeley’s average was $131,300 while Stanford’s was $164,300.
Top public universities have worried in recent years that the salary gap with top private universities has grown too large. The average salary for a professor at a public research institution is $106,495 compared with $136,689 for a private research university, according to the latest AAUP data.
All this has made Berkeley an increasingly inviting target for professor raiding. Between 2000 and 2006, the university retained almost 70 percent of the faculty members with competing outside offers. (Of 236 professors, 162 were kept.) But Birgeneau said that's only been because of cost-cutting measures and other actions that cannot be sustained over time.
Berkeley often loses professors to elite East Coast private institutions, Birgeneau said, and many are in fields such as economics and the sciences. The dean of the biological sciences in the College of Letters and Science, for instance, said that since he took his post in 2002, he is aware of 37 retention cases among his faculty of 120.
With the departure of high-profile faculty comes not only a decline in prestige for the university and its department but also a potential loss of revenue. If a senior faculty member is replaced by a younger professor, the likelihood of attracting federal funding can decrease. It's also a matter of resources spent by the university that loses the professor.
"We've made a substantial investment in the faculty member, so anytime we lose someone of that stature it's a tremendous hit," Birgeneau said.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison is facing the same type of trouble. Of its 2,220 faculty members, 116 outside offers were reported in 2005-6. The prior two years also saw over 100 outside offers reported -- which is twice as many as were reported five years ago, according to the university.
Excluding preemptive offers in which no negotiations took place with another university, Wisconsin's success rate in retaining faculty is about 57 percent, compared with a previous six-year average of 75 percent retained. The average salary associated with the outside offer was about 30 percent more than the faculty member's current Wisconsin salary. For those the campus did not retain, the competing salary was about 40 percent higher.
Outside offer packages also included more comprehensive start-up packages, more research support and greater research leave and domestic partner benefits, Wisconsin officials say.
"What's at stake here is the future of public higher education," said John D. Wiley, Madison's chancellor. "State universities are where much of the research is taking place, and their ability to keep the top researchers is in jeopardy."
Wiley said many of Madison's departments have been targets of faculty raids, and it tends to go in cycles -- with, say, the English department receiving notice in one year that several professors are weighing offers. The university has already increased its endowed chair funding over the past several years, he said, and efforts like Berkeley's are helpful tools in keeping faculty.
The Berkeley grant, to be given over seven years, will be shared across the 14 schools and colleges and be nearly a 50 percent increase over the university's $468 million in endowed chair funding.
The gift also provides funding for recruiting top graduate students, who also are being offered substantial fellowship packages by private colleges.