UNC-CH holding serve in faculty retention fights, provost's office says

For the moment, UNC-Chapel Hill is faring well in the battle to retain its current crop of professors and recruit new ones, but the budget picture is a long-term threat to that, its provost and other officials say.

In fiscal 2015-16, the campus lost 11 professors to offers from other institutions, among them two who went to nearby Duke University, Executive Vice Provost Ron Strauss told members of the campus Faculty Council.

At the time time, it hired 94 new ones to tenured or tenure-track positions, including more than one from Duke, Strauss said.

“In the marketplace of academic life, I hate to put it this way, the net was gain, not loss,” he added.

The 11-professor loss was UNC’s smallest in seven years, and continued a trend under Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration that’s seen fewer faculty members opt to leave each year than generally was the case under her predecessor, Holden Thorp.

In 2012-13, final year of Thorp’s chancellorship, 48 professors left. The departure numbers in his tenure spiked as high as 78 in 2010-11.

The Thorp years coincided with the worst budget crunches triggered by the 2008 market crash, and were also plagued by a series of scandals that gave the impression of leadership disarray.

During 2015-16, 53 UNC professors received hiring offers from other universities, Strauss said. A majority of those targeted people in the College of Arts and Sciences, the unit that houses the traditional academic disciplines and handles the bulk of UNC’s undergraduate teaching duties.

Departments, schools, colleges and the administration assembled counter-offers for 39 of the raid targets. They helped convince 36 to stay, and three more opted to stay even without receiving a counter from UNC, Strauss said.

Just a few miles down the road in Durham, Duke is a perennial player in the talent-raiding game at UNC, “and you can imagine why,” he said. In the past five years, it’s targeted 18 faculty members, making five of those offers in 2015-16 alone.

On the flip side, Strauss indicated that UNC was able to capitalize on political turmoil at one of its peers, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, by hiring away more than one professor. The conflict at Wisconsin revolved around changes to state tenure rules.

But Strauss’ boss, Provost Jim Dean, said UNC’s budget situation is a concern because a long-term reduction in state subsidies is affecting its ability to maintain its combination of low tuition and faculty quality.

In response to council questions, he acknowledged that his office has cut back on the “start up” aid it gives new hired professors to help them cover the bills for setting up new labs. Graduate-student stipends — a concern to faculty who rely on grad students for teaching and research help — are also low relative to UNC’s peers.

Compared to a selected list of peers like Duke and Wisconsin, UNC tends to give full professors close to average pay, associate professors below average and entry-level assistant professors at the bottom, he said.

“The money has to come from someplace. We exist in faculty markets,” Dean said, the former head of the Kenan-Flagler Business School. “There’s not like a separate market for public [university] faculty. We compete and should compete with all the top universities, public and private. And to do that, you don’t get to set the market price.”

Dean delivered a similar briefing earlier in the week to campus trustees’ University Affairs Committee. His presentation noted that Carolina has relatively high graduation rates and a rate of pulling in research grants that contrast with faculty-pay trends.

The juxtaposition of those facts wasn’t lost among the trustees. The committee’s chairman, Chuck Duckett, said UNC is “skating along” on the retention front and may well be “one downturn away from” the threat of major faculty losses “becoming more than real.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg