Poachers' paradise

The economic woes of public universities in the US present ‘a prime opportunity’ for institutions with money to swoop in and snatch up staff. Jon Marcus reports

August 23, 2012

Julie Korenberg is an international authority on the hot topic of brain function, exploring issues such as how human relationships are formed as well as the development of potentially lucrative drugs that could control human behaviours.

So it seemed a coup when Korenberg moved herself, her laboratory and her substantial research funding to Salt Lake City to join the Brain Institute at the University of Utah. After all, this was the city that took offence recently when David Cameron appeared to call it the “middle of nowhere”.

Then again, what Korenberg left behind to move to Utah was a position at the University of California, Los Angeles, part of a public higher education system where the budget has been cut by hundreds of millions of dollars, and salaries are stagnant, facilities are worn and staff have suffered the indignity of being sent on mandatory unpaid leave.

The economic woes of public universities such as California’s present “a prime opportunity” for institutions with money to swoop in and snatch up leading faculty, says Ronald Ehrenberg, professor of industrial and labour relations and economics, and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

“Faculty at top private universities are doing well in the US, faculty in top publics are not - and they are prime targets for raids,” Ehrenberg says. “This is a long-term trend that the great recession has exacerbated, and it is not likely to get better.”

Utah has put itself in a position to poach high-profile academics by creating a multimillion-dollar state fund called the UStar Economic Development Initiative, set up in 2006 to recruit and equip world-class research teams that are assigned to the state’s universities.

That is why Utah had the financial means to snag Korenberg and other top faculty by promising high salaries, gleaming new research buildings and other amenities. And it is only one of several comparatively prosperous states and institutions capitalising on the troubles of less well-off rivals to steal top researchers.

Some faculty may even be ripe for recruitment by international suitors. After all, says Michael O’Malley, spokesman for UStar, only half joking: “If we can attract people to the middle of nowhere, anyone can do it.”

California is a prime target for the poachers, thanks not only to its deep budget cuts but also to the historically excellent quality of its public higher education system.

Writing in Times Higher Education earlier this month, Paul Curran, vice-chancellor of City University London and chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, argued that Californian academics are increasingly keen to consider moving to the UK.

He wrote that in a recent recruitment drive, he was “anticipating some short conversations” with colleagues in the US, but that this was not the case, adding: “I found that the real-terms salary difference for professors and academic staff in general in the US and the UK has decreased by about 12 per cent over the past decade.”

“It’s probably as good a time to pick faculty out of the University of California system as it’s ever been,” says Martin Finkelstein, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

The University of California, San Diego lost not one but three top cancer scientists to the private Rice University in Texas, along with millions of dollars of research funding. Rice used $10 million (£6.4 million) from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas for the purpose, a $3 billion state fund for cancer research, even as funding for California campuses continued to plummet.

The three researchers - José Onuchic, Herbert Levine and Peter Wolynes - “are unambiguously the best people in their fields”, Rice provost George McLendon says. “To be able to pull off one such hire is very difficult; to do three at once is miraculous.”

The decision to leave, Levine acknowledges, resulted from a combination of the uncertain outlook in California and the very good offer from Rice. “My move was a combination of ‘pull’ together with some degree of ‘push’, having to do with increasing lack of support services at the University of California,” he says.

The jewel of the system, the University of California, Berkeley, lost 30 academics in three years to Harvard and other deeper-pocketed private competitors before instituting a plan to fend off the feeding frenzy by increasing the salaries of top mid-career academics. Now, in the second year of that programme’s anticipated three-year span, Berkeley has solicited private contributions for a billion-dollar war chest to create 100 endowed chairs, pumping money back into pay and other benefits without being subject to economic ups and downs. It has even created a “CALcierge” service to help staff find housing and employment for spouses.

At a place like Berkeley, “outside offers will always be a part of our academic life”, says Janet Broughton, Berkeley’s vice-provost for the faculty. But she says the number of such offers has fallen, and, thanks to the private contributions in its arsenal, the university made successful counter-offers in 95 per cent of such cases over the past year. “We work hard to make Berkeley a place where faculty members will want to stay for their entire careers,” Broughton says.

Still, policymakers, academic staff and union officials worry that California faculty not lucky enough to work at Berkeley continue to be vulnerable to recruiters because working conditions generally show few signs of improvement. “It’s getting depressing around here,” one academic says.

It is not only forced leave, laggard pay and budget uncertainties that are compelling California faculty to consider leaving. Some speak of the impact of the state’s economic problems on their children’s schools, for instance.

“People had hoped to come to California and do their work and make their lives here, and the cuts have been pretty devastating to being able to fulfil that dream,” says Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association and a professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles. “The instability and the way in which our state and, unfortunately, states around the nation have backed away from funding public higher education is creating a churning.”

Nevertheless, she adds, “it isn’t like this stuff isn’t happening elsewhere”.

Many US states have cut their higher education budgets. State appropriations to US public research universities fell by an average of 25 per cent over the past 10 years, and by as much as 50 per cent at some institutions, according to the independent not-for-profit National Research Council. Academic salaries remained flat for two years before creeping up by 1.1 per cent in 2011-12. That was less than half the rate of increase at private universities, and only a third of the increase in the cost of living. All this helps to make it a buyer’s market.

Meanwhile, the proportion of staff who can look forward to tenure is also down. “That’s another thing that may be motivating people, especially young people, to leave their universities for tenure-track prospects,” Ehrenberg says.

The percentage of full-time staff not on the tenure track has more than doubled since 1975, to 37 per cent. And there is a huge backlog of people with PhDs looking for places: a single tenure-track opening can attract several hundred applications. (“You can talk about recruiting older stars, but this is a wonderful time to recruit young PhDs,” Ehrenberg notes.)

Not surprisingly, in an international survey by Finkelstein and others, the percentage of US academics who rated their commitment to their institutions as “strong” is down from 90 per cent in 1992 to 61 per cent now.

When the recession started eating away at public university budgets, the University of North Carolina managed to keep only 24 of the 77 professors approached by other universities during the 2009-10 academic year. That is a retention rate of 30 per cent, compared with the usual 60 per cent. The academics were snatched away by the likes of Cornell and Yale universities and offered nearly double the pay and research funding that North Carolina could give them.

“Budget cuts played a role, but some universities may be more aggressive in recruiting in many or perhaps only select fields when all universities are struggling more than usual,” says North Carolina’s provost Bruce Carney, who was forced to sit back and watch his staff depart when the university could not come up with the money to make counter-offers.

Since then, North Carolina has been able to slow the bleeding and even hire a few top scholars from other institutions itself. But Carney learned something from the experience: that money is important, but it is not the only thing that can persuade an academic to jump ship.

“I don’t think it’s possible for an individual university to effectively diminish the number of outside offers except by good salary increases and especially by fighting hard to retain the very best faculty,” Carney says. To do this, he argues, your university must be a place where creativity can thrive. “There are individual faculty and clusters of faculty in individual departments or in multiple departments that make a university an exciting environment, one that becomes hard to leave.”

That is what Saveez Saffarian found when he was recruited to Utah in 2010: momentum. Thanks to that state’s aggressive employment spree, “there’s a very nice cocoon of really high-quality people”, says Saffarian, an assistant professor of biology and of physics. “You want to go somewhere (where) you have a cohort of very active, high-class people pursuing research the same way.”

When Saffarian was looking to move from his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, even some private universities had started cancelling their recruitment because of a lack of resources caused by endowment losses. Utah offered Saffarian a job, $1 million in start-up money and promises of more - and the same for his wife, a physicist, since they came as a pair.

It has turned out to be a good investment. Staff recruited by Utah’s UStar programme have brought with them more than $100 million in research funding - twice what it cost to recruit them - in areas including biopharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, energy, medical imaging and brain medicine as well as imaging technologies and digital media. Government and private grant money in the US is usually awarded to an individual researcher, rather than to a particular laboratory, and travels with him or her.

“Just because we’re talking about higher education doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a business analogy,” says Ted McAleer, UStar’s executive director, “and this is about supply and demand.”

He says that some faculty are ready to move, especially if they are nervous about the amount of state funding their universities are getting, but only if conditions are right.

That is why, in addition to good salaries, Utah offers $160 million worth of brand-new buildings, one each at the University of Utah and Utah State University, and labs with high-level research teams and lavish support.

“Scientists are concerned much more about the research environment than they are with their salaries. So the research facilities are very, very important,” Ehrenberg says.

But are US academics equally ripe for the picking by UK universities, as City University’s Curran has suggested? Ehrenberg thinks so. “The UK has a tremendous advantage over most European countries, which is a common language. Because of that, I think the answer is ‘yes’.”

Seton Hall’s Finkelstein is less sure that the UK is an attractive prospect. For one thing, if the proportion of US scholars who feel loyal to their institutions is down to 61 per cent, the same international survey puts the number for their counterparts in the UK at a dismal 38 per cent.

“I would think they wouldn’t want to go from the frying pan into the fire,” Finkelstein says. “I can’t think of a group of colleagues that are more dispirited than my British colleagues. It would be a tough case to make for the British that someone ought to leave Berkeley or UCLA to come there. Anything is possible, but I would think there would be a fair amount of caution given what’s been happening in the UK in the past 20 years.”

Meanwhile, like Berkeley, other universities have started to fight back, according to McAleer. “It only takes a university losing one or two people to get the attention of the provost or of the president, who say, ‘Why are we losing these people?’”

That was the reaction of Case Western Reserve University, which lost three top staff to Utah before raising private donations to improve faculty salaries and labs.

“Now they’re investing to make sure they don’t lose anybody else,” McAleer says.

Utah has an answer to that, too. As part of its recruiting strategy, it takes prospective staff to some of the world-class ski resorts near the university. Whether that is the reason or not, the state has landed an impressive half of the academic candidates it has chased.

“If you like to ski and snowboard,” says O’Malley, UStar’s spokesman, “Utah is the middle of awesome.”

Leaving a ‘dismantled’ system

Toby Miller, a social scientist, is one academic to have been lured away from California to the UK.

Miller, who had been working at the University of California, Riverside, joins City University London this autumn.

Although Miller says he loved living in Los Angeles, he remained the only full professor in the new department he was hired to help build, and he says he was demoralised by broken promises. He has even written a book about the situation in US higher education titled Blow Up the Humanities.

“When the [financial] crisis commenced, contractual guarantees about both faculty and staffing were broken,” Miller says. When he complained, “I was invited to sue the university.”

Instead, he opted to accept the offer to come back to England, where he was born before being raised in India and Australia. (He wanted, too, to join his daughter, who had finished university and was also coming to the UK.)

“I came to California for the remarkable achievement in public culture that was the University of California system,” Miller says. “It is being dismantled.”

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