Archive for Saturday, August 15, 1998


August 15, 1998


KU's chancellor says the faculty brain drain is a lesson in economics. Pay competitive salaries, keep the best faculty. Pay lame wages, see them picked off by other universities.

Ground-penetrating radar scholar Richard Plumb wants to get one point clear.

He didn't leave Kansas University's engineering school during the summer over money.

Plumb, a ``diehard Jayhawk'' and member of KU's faculty for nine years, said he was primarily drawn to an offer to become a full professor and chair of the electrical engineering department at State University of New York in Binghamton, N.Y., because it offered potent career advancement.

``I think this was a good opportunity to get into administration,'' he said.

Plumb said another factor was that SUNY-Binghamton, the state's premier public university, promised lab and graduate student support equal to that at KU. Selective enrollment standards at the school meant he would work with exceptional students. He also has relatives on both sides of his family living in Syracuse, N.Y., about an hour's drive from Binghamton.

And -- here's the kicker -- SUNY-Binghamton made Plumb a salary offer that he couldn't logically refuse and that KU couldn't realistically match. If he moved to New York, his new salary would be 60 percent greater than what he received at KU.

``I was flabbergasted by the salary they offered me,'' he said. ``It's like hitting the lotto.''

Broken record

KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said it was a well-known fact that faculty salaries at KU hover at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference.

Statistics indicate average faculty salaries at KU fell close to the bottom of wages paid professors at 13 state-supported universities in the surrounding states of Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma between 1986 and 1996.

Hemenway said that trend set the stage for a raid on the KU faculty.

Here's how it works: Junior professors at KU begin to make a mark in academic circles. Universities investing in high-powered scholars offer these young all-stars big bucks and a promotion. Junior faculty members weigh their love for KU against megasalaries and other perks. Most hit the road.

``The thing that worries me is that if you simply get too far below the national market value, your very best people get picked off,'' Hemenway said.

While a few faculty at KU spurn outside offers, the majority don't. Hemenway said slow bleeding of the faculty could significantly undermine the university. Year after year of faculty flight can ``take the heart out of the institution,'' he said.

See Faculty, page 23B

Hemenway said KU salaries consistently below comparable universities didn't help recruitment of new faculty. The problem is evident for entry-level assistant professorships and top-scale full professorships.

``These people are saying, `Here's what I would have to have to come.' They usually want an amount significantly higher than many of their comparable colleagues are making at KU.''

``That does cut down on your ability to bring in the best people.''

Hemenway said hiring the best the university can afford may translate into mediocrity.

That's exactly what worries Plumb and, he said, should concern the state's policymakers in Topeka. That's where the Kansas House and Senate, in conjunction with the governor, decide how much university faculty should be paid.

Plumb wonders when, not if, his former KU engineering colleagues will stop working for a minute and consider salaries paid at other universities.

``If the Legislature doesn't take care of the issue, they could lose a lot of very talented people,'' he said.

Recruiting game

The hard-ball contest of recruiting the best and brightest scholars has long involved the dangling of king-sized paychecks and perks as bait.

In 1980, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist was drawn to Columbia University after a bidding war. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati couldn't turn down a package that included a salary that was tops in the department, a two-room office with personal secretary, a job for his wife and 10-room campus apartment with a view of the Hudson River.

Fast forward nearly 20 years to Robert Barro, a Harvard University economist sought by Columbia. He turned down -- repeat, turned down -- a $300,000 pay package, a three-bedroom apartment, three offices, authority to hire six young economists, a $55,000-a-year job for his wife and a spot for his son in a private school.

Barb Conant, director of communications for the Kansas Board of Regents, said few faculty at the six regents universities encountered such rarefied air.

However, she said, each university in the regents system has suffered losses. Faculty resignations from the six universities have increased every year since 1993. In the 1997 academic year, the system suffered 140 faculty resignations. Half of those people were assistant professors.

Conant said a key reason was that average faculty salaries at KU and the five other state universities are about 10 percent below salaries paid professors at comparable schools in other states.

``Faculty salaries are a concern and will continue to be so,'' Conant said.

She said it was difficult to convince politicians and citizens about the urgency to catch up with other universities in terms of compensation.

Folks running a hardware store in Dodge City, the wheat farmer in Wellington and the sheriff's deputy in Cloud County have difficulty relating to a professor who complains about making $50,000 while working nine months a year.

``We struggle with that,'' she said.

Hemenway said failure to convince taxpayers of the need to boost faculty salaries would have long-term negative consequences.

``The net effect on any regular Kansan is that you get what you pay for,'' he said. ``If we're not paying competitive salaries, then we won't get the best faculty, and the sons and daughters of Kansas won't get the best education.

``I think, frankly, Kansans deserve better than that. The students of Kansas deserve better than that.''

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is

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