Opinion: Daily Journal

No Exodus in the Offing

RALEIGH – The Raleigh News & Observer put a piece on its front page Wednesday announcing the dire news: “UNC raided for faculty talent.”

Pardon me. I need to yawn.

The University of North Carolina system has been putting out some version of this very same story for at least 20 years – at least as long as I’ve been watching state budget debates. There’s always an alleged brain drain from the universities. It’s always going to threaten UNC’s national reputation and, therefore, the value of the degrees conferred on its students. It’s always the result of legislative stinginess.

And it’s always a gross exaggeration.

Turnover among university faculty and employees is low. It is lower than the turnover in most other professions. Every year, a few dozen highly courted professors out of thousands (Chapel Hill alone has more than 2,000 full-time professors) leave UNC schools for an attractive new gig. Every year, a few dozen highly courted professors arrive at UNC schools for an attractive new gig. That’s pretty much a normal course of events for large institutions with lots of different people doing lots of different things – and making career moves for a host of different reasons. The net result hardly constitutes an exodus of Biblical proportions.

Also, every year, there’s a compelling anecdote about a popular teacher or well-published researcher who leaves North Carolina because another school offered a better financial package or professional opportunity. But compelling anecdotes are no substitute for sound public-policy analysis.

Wow, here comes another yawn. Excuse me for a moment.

Okay, I’m back. The flip side of the fact that relatively few UNC professors are actually involved in these annual academic bidding wars is that little of the state of North Carolina’s annual subsidy for the UNC system is actually employed in bidding for top-flight talent. The N&O reported Wednesday that the system “spends about $1 million a year boosting pay for faculty it persuades to stay.” That’s out of roughly $3 billion the General Assembly appropriates to UNC each year.

As I wrote yesterday, the not-so-dramatic difference between the Senate and House levels of funding for UNC is just over $100 million. While that doesn’t represent a large percentage of the total, it is also large enough to demonstrate that if UNC wanted to make a priority of its retention rate for top-flight faculty, it could do so with existing funds.

The debate over university funding is not really about recruiting and retaining star faculty. It is about how many average-or-worse professors and other workers the UNC system employs, how many students it admits but never graduates, how many academic programs of questionable merit it maintains, and how much of the taxpayer subsidy is spent on trivial research, capital projects, sports, recreation, side businesses, and various nonacademic pursuits.

Perhaps the state legislature should make a deal with the university system along these lines: we’ll vastly increase the pot of money you can use for star-faculty retention, say up to $25 million a year, if you’ll promise never to float a “brain drain” story again.

Oh, pardon me, again. I just can’t stop yawning today.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.