A brain drain at UNCA?

Last spring, an institute that specializes in higher education set out to determine whether faculty of the University of North Carolina system are adequately compensated. This is a subject that stirs up heated debate in university communities: Are UNC campuses experiencing a brain drain because higher salaries outside the university system are drawing away top talent?

By and large, the study by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (which I head) found little evidence of low faculty compensation in the university system. When living costs are factored in and both pay and benefits are considered, most UNC faculty are paid as well or better than their colleagues at other comparable universities.

But there was one major exception: UNC-Asheville. On every level we looked at—professor, associate professor and assistant professor—compensation at UNCA was below the average compensation at peer institutions.

Why the discrepancy? There are probably several reasons. For one, Asheville has become an expensive place to live, which means that salaries don’t go as far. Of course, living in and around Asheville is appealing. The weather is temperate; there’s a small-town feel with increasingly upscale attractions; the mountains are beautiful. In other words, Asheville is expensive because people like to live there. Certainly, some professors (like their counterparts in scenic spots in Colorado and Montana) will be willing to forgo some potential income in exchange for enjoying the surroundings they love.

Going a little deeper into the search for causes, we must note that UNCA is a liberal-arts college. That is, it mostly awards bachelor’s degrees (in the sciences as well as arts); it has few graduate students and no professional schools. This is unusual among public universities. Most of UNCA’s direct competitors are private, including such famed schools as Amherst, Williams, Oberlin and Davidson, which produce a lot of wealthy alumni. Many of these schools reward their faculty handsomely, and UNCA can’t offer comparable compensation.

But there is another, related reason why faculty compensation is relatively low: As a liberal-arts school, UNCA lacks graduate-level research programs. Although Chancellor Anne Ponder is proud of the research that undergraduates conduct under faculty supervision, this is not the kind of research that garners big bucks from state and federal governments. The research funds churned out by the money mills go to the large schools offering Ph.D.s in an ever-expanding array of disciplines.

These days, research is what counts. As Jane Stancill wrote in The News & Observer of Raleigh (Aug. 5): “Huge losses in manufacturing jobs have led leaders to reinvent the North Carolina economy. Part of the plan is pouring money toward the creation of university centers in fields such as biotechnology, genomics, nutrition, gerontology, biofuels and nanotechnology.”

Whether this money will spur economic development is an unanswered question, but certainly it means that “mere” undergraduate education gets short shrift. The big bundles of money go to the schools that have been expanding their advanced-degree programs—such as UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC-Charlotte—so they can create giant research campuses. Ironically, however, at the large universities with well-paid faculty, many undergraduate students sit in giant classes and interact more with graduate-student teaching assistants than with those well-paid professors.

And despite its disadvantages, UNCA seems to be doing well for its students. A few years ago, The Princeton Review called the school “one of those relatively unknown gems in higher education,” and this year, the publication ranked it as one of the top three “best value” colleges in the nation. Meanwhile, even though three faculty members turned down offers last spring due to salary concerns, 15 new faculty were hired. Chancellor Ponder worries that many dedicated baby boomer faculty members are approaching retirement, and it will be difficult to replace them. She may be right, but so far, the evidence just isn’t there.

With its focus on undergraduates, UNCA has a distinctive mission, and it’s located in a beautiful place. Those factors may prove a lot more influential in attracting good faculty than some extra compensation dollars would.

[Jane S. Shaw is executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.]

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