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Brain drain at University of Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. --University of Wisconsin-Madison has long been an attractive target for elite schools like Harvard and Stanford looking for top academics. But now other public universities are among the faculty poachers, and school administrators are worried.

Dozens of professors have left in the past two years, and Chancellor John Wiley said a growing number are going to schools that traditionally could not compete with the state's flagship university. More than 115 professors reported receiving outside offers last year, the most in 20 years and more than double the number from five years ago.

Administrators at Wisconsin, traditionally ranked among the nation's top public schools, say some departments are in crisis because of the losses. They worry about the school's quality and ability to draw research dollars.

Faculty say the departures accelerated as professors' salaries hit rock bottom among their peers and morale sagged amid state-imposed budget cuts.

In response, lawmakers are expected to consider Gov. Jim Doyle's plan on Tuesday to create a $10 million fund to retain faculty at Madison and other campuses in the UW system. UW-Madison is lobbying hard for the plan.

"In years past, schools like Pitt or Rutgers, even some of the other major state universities like Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana would not have been able to hire away from Wisconsin," Wiley said. "And they are doing that now."

Departments such as political science, English and history have been particularly hard-hit, Wiley said.

Wiley said the university, which maintained its U.S. News & World Report ranking as seventh- best public university last year, is trying to retain top professors.

A UW-Madison full professor earns an average of $103,000 per year, the lowest in the school's 12-member peer group, and well below the $117,000 average at those schools, according to the American Association of University Professors.

University officials say a retention fund in the last state budget helped keep more than 100 key faculty members.

But they didn't include Joe Soss, a political science professor leaving for the University of Minnesota. He said the departures should make taxpayers think about whether they want to maintain UW-Madison's strong reputation.

"In my case, the decision to respond to an invitation is something that arose after a number of years of frustration with the resources at the university," said Soss, who said Minnesota will increase his $90,000 salary by 50 percent. "I think that you've seen a real upswing in the number of people who are responding to invitations because of what's going on."

The problems started in 2003 when Doyle and lawmakers slashed $250 million from the university system to balance the state budget and froze professors' pay. Funding has remained at about the same level and raises have been below inflation ever since.

Departing professors say the university lacks resources, meaning fewer teaching assistants and less money for lab improvements and travel, among other things. Tuition at UW-Madison is the second-lowest in the Big 10 athletic conference, which is made up primarily of public, Midwestern universities.

In some cases, professors' departures mean their courses will no longer be offered. Graduate students who worked under a professor will have their studies disrupted.

Jeff Wright, a political science major who will be a senior in the fall, said a professor who was going to advise him on his honors' thesis left last year for Georgetown University. And he recently learned the next professor he asked to help, Soss, would also be leaving.

"I've lost two advisers. It's really disheartening for me," he said. "These are great people."

"When you have a mass exodus of faculty leaving, that sort of jars students and tells them that something may be wrong here and their education is being compromised," he added.