UCI Professors Leaving?

The Los Angeles Times reported in June that UC San Diego recently lost a battle with Rice University when it tried to keep three star professors Ń all members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences – for their cutting-edge cancer research. The recruiting package from Rice University included 40 percent pay raises, new state-of-the-art labs and a steady flow of money to support their research from a Texas state bond fund.

However, another factor helped close that deal: The professors’ sense that the declining funding for the UC system makes it a convenient time to move. These former UCSD professors represent a growing sentiment from other UC faculty that their jobs might be more secure at private institutions and even overseas. Last year, about 75 percent of UC faculty who received offers from other schools were persuaded to stay. Although Lawrence Pitts, the UC system’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, did not expect that figure to change much this year, it is important to note some consequences of UC Irvine and other UCs having to compete with other schools to keep their top professors especially under the curtain of California’s budget issues.

For instance, instead of UCI having to match a pay raise that was offered by another school to a professor, those funds could help fill other vacancies or could be used to hire additional professors.

However, if UCI is unable to retain that professor, then grant money and academic prestige often moves with him/her. It’s a lose-lose situation for UCI and other UCs either way you look at it; and schools outside the UC system, especially the private institutions such as Rice and Columbia, are taking advantage of it.

I’ve seen this scenario play out at UCI already and it was with one of the better professors I’ve had the opportunity to take over the course of my three years at UCI so far – Professor Keith Woerpel, who taught me organic chemistry last year during the winter quarter. Professor Woerpel treated lecture like a discussion section so class participation was always high. In addition, never had I met a professor who made a conscious effort to know the names of every one of his students, including those who did not participate in lecture or show up to his office hours much.

When I learned that he was leaving for New York University during the summer, I was sad, of course (since I recommended my peers to take him if he taught again). But I also realized, then, that the state budget crisis had trickled down to not only affect the increased tuition that I have to pay this year but also the top professors at UCI like Professor Woerpel, who need to look out for themselves even though they are tenured.

Although we may be inclined to call out the private universities for playing dirty by taking advantage of the state budget crisis and wooing away our professors, let’s play devil’s advocate to evaluate their position. Suppose we were high-ranked officials and administrators at Harvard and we had the opportunity to take Hans Keirstead, a UCI School of Medicine professor whose research team developed the world’s first embryonic stem cell study in humans to treat spinal cord injury.  Our job would not be to figure out how to help the UC system but rather to make Harvard better in stem cell research, and we would do that by recruiting someone like Dr. Keirstead.

So what does this mean for us students since we don’t have any control over the decisions that our professors make in staying or leaving UCI? For starters, don’t be surprised if you find out that your favorite professor is moving from UCI especially with the seemingly never-ending budget cuts. In addition, don’t be surprised if you are stuck taking a class with a professor that is below your teaching standards since the best professor that UCI has to offer may be teaching at another school.

Yet, if you took a class with a professor who recently left UCI and you need to get a recommendation letter from that professor, you could always visit him/her like how my classmate visited Professor Woerpel at NYU this year and grabbed lunch with him in the process. After all, it shouldn’t surprise you that the sunny side of education favors the private universities these days.

Kevin Phan is a fourth-year biological sciences major.  He can be reached at phankt@uci.edu.