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UC fears talent loss to deeper pockets

The departure of three star scientists from UC San Diego has officials worried about a possible brain drain tied to budget cuts.

June 29, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • UC San Diego professors, from left, Herbert Levine, Jose Onuchic and Peter Wolynes are leaving Southern California next month for Rice University in Houston, where they will continue their cancer research.
UC San Diego professors, from left, Herbert Levine, Jose Onuchic and Peter… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

UC San Diego faced a losing battle recently when it tried to hang on to three star scientists being wooed by Rice University for cutting-edge cancer research. The recruiting package from the private Houston university included 40% pay raises, new labs and a healthy flow of research money from a Texas state bond fund.

Another factor, unrelated to Rice, helped close the deal: The professors' sense that declining state funding for the University of California makes it a good time to pack their bags.

"What's happening now is that the UC and most of the public schools are getting in a much weaker position to play this game," said physicist Jose Onuchic, who has taught at UC San Diego for 22 years but will head to Texas next month, along with fellow physicist Herbert Levine and biochemist Peter Wolynes.

The imminent departures of the three — all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences — has unsettled leaders of the UC system. Officials say a worsening UC budget picture is emboldening other schools, particularly top private institutions, to recruit UC faculty and may prompt other professors to leave.

"It's like piranha. They sense blood in the water," Gene Lucas, UC Santa Barbara's executive vice chancellor said of the recruiting institutions, which increasingly include overseas universities.

UC officials say that, so far, they have managed to fend off most raids in a system that employs about 18,000 faculty members.

But matching the growing number of outside offers comes at a cost, using funds that could help fill vacancies and hire additional professors. And when they don't succeed, grant money often moves with the departing researcher, along with a dose of academic prestige.

Daniel Simmons, a UC Davis law professor who is chairman of the UC system's Academic Senate, called Rice's success in recruiting the San Diego trio "a stunning example of where we are losing" and said the numbers of such departures may increase.

UC Davis, for example, saw the number of firm outside offers to faculty double to 61 this year from last, and its retention rate drop from 90% to 72% as it lost professors to such universities as Brown, New York University, Penn State and Rice, according to Barbara Horwitz, vice provost for academic affairs. Those schools are pursuing established experts at UC in part "because there is so much uncertainty in the state," she said.

At UC Santa Barbara, the number of recruitment attempts rose 15% this year to about two dozen, according to Lucas. UC Santa Barbara tries to match the offers as much as possible, but could not compete with two packages from a Swiss university that doubled the salaries of professors in science and engineering. Others on campus said it was the elite Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

Last year, about 75% of UC faculty who received firm offers from other schools were persuaded to stay, about the same as in recent years, according to Lawrence H. Pitts, the UC system's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. This year's figures were not yet available, but Pitts said he did not expect much change.

However, he and other UC leaders are concerned about the university's ability to keep top talent in a tough budget climate. "The chance of having more recruiting and retention problems in a year is entirely possible," Pitts said. "We are all worried about it."

A recent report to the UC regents showed a troubling trend. Of tenured professors hired in 2000-01, 28 had left UC eight years later, compared with 19 hired the previous year, the study said. The most common destinations were Stanford, NYU, USC, Columbia and Harvard — private schools that tend to pay more — and the University of Michigan, a top public university.

The rise in departures of tenured professors "is of particular concern because these are high-quality faculty in whom UC has made a substantial investment," the authors wrote. In addition, new faculty hires dropped from 607 in 2008-09 to 379 last year, the most recent figures available.

Private research universities increasingly pay professors more than public institutions, with the gap growing from an 8% advantage in 1980 for full professors at private doctoral-granting schools to about 25% this year, according to the American Assn. of University Professors. Private schools' growing use of the wage gap to lure faculty hires "is definitely an issue nationally," said John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy for the faculty group.

At Rice, Provost George McLendon said his school focused on the San Diego trio as it sought the best physicists and other scientists for cancer research. "It wasn't about targeting the University of California, but it was targeting some specific people who could help us move forward in a much faster way," he said.

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