When the University of Minnesota needed international relations professors this summer, officials there looked to their neighbor across the Mississippi River, approaching five of the seven international relations faculty members at UW-Madison to recruit them en masse.
The first emails came in June, said professor Mark Copelovitch, one of the faculty members sought by Minnesota. That was before Wisconsin’s 2015-17 budget was passed and signed, but after it became clear the state was poised to slash funding for its public universities and weaken tenure protections — changes that were opposed by UW professors.
Since then, UW-Madison officials say, the campus has seen an increase in the number of professors entertaining job offers from competing universities.
“Many more of our faculty are being recruited than we’ve seen in other years,” Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf said. “It’s being felt pretty much everywhere.”
UW-Madison has not said how many faculty campuswide have been recruited by other institutions. But its College of Letters and Science — which averages about 30 retention cases per fiscal year — had already seen 42 this academic year, with what Mangelsdorf called “prime recruiting season” still to come in January, February and March.
Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said Wisconsin’s budget cuts and changes to tenure and shared governance have been hot topics in academic circles, and were frequently covered in the national higher education press. That exposure could lead to the perception — one UW-Madison officials say they’re working against — that the university is vulnerable to raids on its professors.
“The changes in Wisconsin over the last year have really caught the attention of higher education officials nationwide,” Harnisch said. “They may well see this as a great opportunity to land some faculty members from Wisconsin and bring them to their campus.”
Top faculty often hear from universities that want to lure them away from UW-Madison, and many factors beyond a state’s political climate affect professors’ decisions to stay or leave. But political science chairman David Canon said the events of the past year could make faculty more receptive to other universities’ recruitment efforts.
“In a normal year … (they) wouldn’t have been open to these overtures,” Canon said. “This is having an impact on the proportion of my colleagues who are open to listening.”
Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for Gov. Scott Walker, questioned whether the impacts UW officials claim the budget is having on faculty are accurate, or if they were “unsubstantiated anecdotes from sources that are hardly unbiased to the situation.”
Copelovitch said he doesn’t know if the budget’s funding cuts and policy changes were what led to Minnesota’s mass recruitment effort, though he said “it’s hard to say that it’s coincidental.”
When the targeted professors told Canon about Minnesota’s recruitment push, UW officials countered with offers of increased salaries and more research funding if they stayed put.
All five took the offers and remain at UW-Madison. A post-doctoral fellow also sought in the attempted raid took UW’s offer to stay and become an assistant professor here.
Campus officials have declined to say how much they are spending this year to retain faculty, but Canon acknowledged it’s “not cheap.”
Speaking to the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities earlier this month, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross referenced Minnesota’s attempt to recruit political science faculty, saying it cost $1 million to keep the professors in Madison. A UW System spokesman said that money will be spent over “several years” and included $420,000 in salary increases and $645,000 for research funding.
UW-Madison pledged in November to spend $3 million on raises and counter-offers for top faculty.
Patrick noted those raises will boost the pay of up to 20 percent of UW-Madison professors, at a time when others on campus have complained about the impact of state budget cuts.
But officials warn that letting those professors leave could be even more costly in terms of the grant funding they bring to the area and UW-Madison’s reputation as a top public university.
Losing those professors, Mangelsdorf said, “would be a huge loss to our state, not just our university.”
Universities targeting UW-Madison
Mass recruitment efforts such as the one Minnesota attempted are rare, officials say, but universities are constantly in competition with one another to get and keep top professors. Over the past five years, UW-Madison has averaged 187 faculty retention cases per fiscal year.
But officials say this year has been especially busy.
The political science department normally sees two to four retention cases each fiscal year, but Canon said it has had nine since July.
Canon, for one, said he has “no doubt” the state budget and the attention it generated have been a factor in recent recruitments.
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While most states increased their spending on higher education this year, Wisconsin reduced the UW System’s funding by $250 million in its 2015-17 budget. UW-Madison will see a nearly $60 million funding cut in the first year of that budget, which also weakened professors’ layoff protections, reduced their role in governing the university and stripped tenure policies from state law.
Although the UW System’s Board of Regents will write tenure protections into System policy — the way tenure is handled in every other state — the change drew national attention to Wisconsin and was seen as undermining one of academia’s bedrock principles.
Faculty more open to offers
Harnisch and several UW-Madison officials say those changes have fueled a perception at other universities that now is the time to recruit professors from UW-Madison.
“They feel that our faculty are sort of ripe for the picking,” said Richard Straub, senior associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Along with the funding cuts and policy changes in the budget, Harnisch pointed out that state lawmakers have also considered changing cherished principles in the Wisconsin Idea, and have introduced legislation to allow concealed carry permit holders to bring guns into campus buildings and classrooms.
And faculty members’ concerns extend beyond what has happened at the state Capitol in 2015, said College of Letters and Science Dean Karl Scholz. He and other officials said professors at UW-Madison make far less money compared to those at other major public research universities.
“It’s not just last year’s budget — we’re riding eight years of frozen salaries, and that gap relative to the peers makes people somewhat restless,” Scholz said.
Professors could decide to seek out other states and universities with better pay, stronger protections and a different political environment, Harnisch said.
Such decisions are typically affected by a range of other factors, from the salary and research funding offered at another university to professors’ quality of life and their willingness to uproot themselves and their families.
Retention will be costly
The good news for UW-Madison officials is that their retention efforts have mostly been successful.
All nine of the professors from Canon’s department who were recruited elsewhere decided to stay at UW-Madison. Eight of the nine faculty recruited from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have done the same, Straub said, with the remaining case still unresolved.
Mangelsdorf said UW-Madison is retaining professors at about the rate it normally does.
But she acknowledged that means the university will wind up losing a greater number of faculty than normal this year if more are being recruited. Mangelsdorf also expects UW-Madison will have to spend more money on retention, given the number of counter-offers it will make to keep professors on campus.
Officials interviewed for this story either said they did not know how much their college or department was spending on retention, or declined to provide exact figures.
Mangelsdorf said recent fundraising efforts — including a nearly $250 million gift to endow faculty positions — will be used to keep professors in Madison, along with the $3 million officials announced last month for faculty raises.
Patrick pointed to Cross’ Assembly testimony, in which he said the System has used money from its controversial funding reserves to retain professors.
UW officials say the spending is necessary. Many of the faculty members being recruited elsewhere are the same ones whose research brings in big grants, and whose work can boost the economy of entire regions.
“It’s not just any faculty that get these big, multimillion-dollar awards,” Mangelsdorf said.
Losing those professors and other top faculty could cost UW-Madison its reputation as one of the country’s best public universities, Scholz said, and make it very hard for it to regain that image.
“Once you fall from that perch, you don’t get it back,” he said.