Energy-rich US states poach talent in downturn

Institutions in have-not regions feel the pinch as Texas and Alaska expand provision, writes John Gill

November 6, 2008

Universities across the world are under financial pressure, but in the US some are having to tighten belts more than others.

While many institutions have seen their state budgets decline, prompting recruitment freezes, mergers and the abandonment of longstanding plans, others are in a very different position.

Some American states are fortunate in having booming industries - oil and natural gas, in particular - and view the funding problems of their neighbours as an opportunity.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that it was inevitable that strong universities would feed off the weak by poaching academics from institutions struggling with their budgets.

"Of course they're going to look, especially to places where they may be in an economic decline," she said.

Among the institutions seeing budgets crumble is the University of Arizona, which has halted all state-financed hiring. It has also been announced that 14 technical colleges in Georgia are to merge into seven in a bid to cut costs.

Meanwhile, in mineral-rich states, the picture is brighter. The University of North Texas is spending tens of millions of dollars on collaborative research projects to lure new researchers; North Dakota State University has hired more than 30 new academic staff in the past year; and the University of Alaska is undertaking an expensive upgrade of its facilities.

Mark W. Spong, dean of engineering and computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he had left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after 24 years because he wanted to join an institution that was on the up.

"Public universities in most states are experiencing declining support," he told The Chronicle, but added that the Dallas institution is in "growth mode".

David E. Daniel, the university's president, agreed, and said he wanted the state of Texas to inject more than $200 million (£122 million) from its forecast budget surplus of $11 billion to pay for endowed faculty positions, fellowships and student scholarships.

"If it's true that we will have a surplus, we have an enormous opportunity to come out of this much better positioned nationally and internationally," he said.

But long-term planning is difficult for universities banking on surpluses from the unpredictable oil and gas industries.

In addition, while states such as Alaska and North Dakota may be rich, they have relatively small populations, making major expansion of higher education unlikely.

David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said that aiming to be "bigger and better" was not always the best approach in times of plenty.

Instead, he suggested, state-funded institutions in some of the places with large surpluses to spend would do better to focus on keeping university education affordable to students from low-income families.

He said: "The last thing those students need is more selective institutions - where the hell are they going to go?"

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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