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Crosstown Rivals 

When USC and UCLA put on their academic game faces, nothing less than the future of the city is at stake

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
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In the end, UCLA met the demands and retained its linguistics department, but not without raising discreet alarms, recalls Kevin Starr. “The chancellor called [USC president] Steven Sample and said, ‘Look I don’t mind you trying to poach a professor or two, but not a whole department!’?” says Starr. “The raid attempt showed a lot of chutzpah.”

If you can’t beat them, join them. Last Wednesday, UCLA flexed its own recruitment muscle and addressed its diversity concerns by announcing that it has snagged Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, a research center focused on civil rights and racial inequality. Poaching one of Harvard’s prized projects was a coup, and possibly an expensive one. According to its own leadership, UCLA has struggled to close a widening state and federal funding gap that has handed a recruiting advantage to private institutions.

“A decade ago, UCLA and Berkeley were receiving funding on a per-student basis that was comparable to USC and were in a position to compete on a selective basis with elite private universities,” former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale told the Academic Senate (the body that represents the school’s faculty) at a private retreat in 2002. “The current resource gap could lead to a concomitant quality gap between these campuses. UCLA could [be unable to] compete with its current resource base.”

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Carnesale’s warning focused on the long-term future, but the root of his concern is already at hand. At the time of the 2002 meeting, USC received $27,000 per student, mostly from tuition, and UCLA $18,000, mostly from state support. That concern has since spread throughout the faculty. Without mentioning USC by name, UCLA’s Academic Senate warned of a “competing private university’s” poaching attempt on the linguistics department. Another report suggested that “a slowdown in recruiting . . . along with reduction in staff and services has created a perception among the faculty that the unit is in decline,” and warned that UCLA was struggling to retain its faculty. The department heads wanted the resources to keep their best talent, and some felt they weren’t getting it.

Many at UCLA and USC complain that Los Angeles’ fast-growing housing costs have made it more difficult to recruit faculty from outside the area. As real estate prices in Los Angeles continue to outpace the rest of the country, both universities have realized it is often easier to conduct raids across town.

How many poaching attempts USC has conducted is uncertain; neither university is keen to publicize data that could depict it as either opportunistic or vulnerable. A UCLA spokesperson says that actual losses are low, though he was unable to document this with exact numbers. In any event, the attempted raid on UCLA’s linguistics department would not have counted in retention statistics, since Stowell’s dean stepped in before USC could make a dollars-and-cents offer.

There is no disputing the competition’s impact on the internal workings of both universities. For Stowell, the fact that UCLA pays so many of its faculty off-scale — in other words, retaining them by offering nonstandard salary raises even during state budget freezes — is itself an indication of the number of poaching attempts the university is fighting off. Rather than raise salaries across the board, the university has doled out big money to keep its stars.

“The upside is that this is the way the UCs have stayed competitive,” says Stowell. “The downside is that it has introduced inequities in the faculty.”

For the most part, the effort has kept UCLA’s brightest talent on board. Professor Terrence Tao became the first faculty member in university history to win a Fields Medal (the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”), soon followed by a MacArthur Fellowship. Though UCLA lost its international-relations-school dean to USC last year, it recently recruited general and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark as a fellow.

But talent is expensive, and faculty like Stowell say that other parts of the university must foot the bill. UCLA’s professional schools now cost nearly as much as those at comparable private institutions. Jared Fox, former president of UCLA’s Graduate Student Association, says his university is able to support fewer and fewer graduate students as a result.

“The common argument is that law-school students will be able to pay their loans back,” says Fox. “We’re seeing fewer and fewer who can afford to go into public service, which is one of the things that public universities are supposed to encourage.”

Lately, money woes have even extended to UC’s leadership. Since the fall of 2005, the regents have grappled with the fallout of a series of San Francisco Chronicle articles that raised questions about the system’s top administrative salaries. Congress has reprimanded the regents over their handling of compensation, as has the university’s own task force. At a recent regents meeting, UC student body president Anu Joshi harangued the university’s leadership for denying her the chance to speak on the issue at their meetings. Hours before, the UC’s systemwide Academic Senate went so far as to replace its head for the first time in history — some reports say it was because he failed to stress the faculty’s concerns to the regents.

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