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Political interference in higher education and changes to tenure are significantly affecting faculty morale and retention in a handful of southern states, new survey findings from the American Association of University Professors suggest.

The association, working with state faculty groups, surveyed more than 4,250 faculty members in Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina from Aug. 14 to Sept. 1. Two-thirds of participants hold tenure.

Overall, two-thirds of surveyed faculty said they would not recommend their state to colleagues as a desirable place to work. One-third are actively seeking academic employment elsewhere, the survey found. Meanwhile, 1 in 5 have already interviewed for jobs in other states since 2021.

Florida professors were highly likely to seek jobs elsewhere. Of 642 surveyed faculty members, almost 300 said they will seek employment outside of the state in the next year, according to the United Faculty of Florida. A fifth, 20%, said they had already begun interviewing for those jobs since 2021.

Additionally, over a quarter of both University System of Georgia and Texas faculty plan to apply for out-of-state jobs. 

“These findings serve as a wake-up call for policymakers and administrators, emphasizing the urgent need to address the concerns raised by faculty members,” the groups said. “Failure to do so may result in a significant brain drain and a decline in the quality of higher education in these states.”

Political interference

Higher ed in all four states has faced significant upheaval and political interference, making it challenging for some faculty to stay in the sector. 

In Texas, the political climate is the top issue driving discontent. Of 1,900-plus surveyed faculty members in the state, 56.8%, said it was pushing them to leave.

In June, the state banned diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public colleges. And Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has advocated for ending tenure at those institutions.

While Texas lawmakers initially moved to ban tenure at public colleges this summer, they rolled back their plans amid concerns it would dissuade prospective faculty from seeking jobs in the state.

In Florida, an overwhelming majority of the faculty members surveyed, about 95.3%, called the state’s political atmosphere around higher education “bad or very bad.”

Like Texas, Florida banned DEI spending at its public colleges this year. And Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed new governing board members at New College of Florida who have taken to remaking the public liberal arts institution as a model for a conservative postsecondary education. 

And in July 2022, Florida’s Stop WOKE Act took effect, banning faculty from discussing certain topics related to race, sex and gender. Four months later, a federal judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the law at public colleges.

Higher ed experts have speculated that these DeSantis-led initiatives would lead to brain drain at the state’s public institutions. 

“These results illustrate how Gov. DeSantis and his supporters’ policies are continuing to harm our state’s colleges and universities,” the United Faculty of Florida, one of the state’s largest faculty unions, said in a statement Thursday.

Salary concerns

In Georgia, the primary factor pushing faculty away was salary anxiety, according to the state’s AAUP conference, which surveyed more than 1,450 faculty members.

“While state lawmakers and the university system have raised base salaries for USG employees each of the last two years, inflation and higher insurance costs have made those raises less impactful,” it said.

Salary was also a big concern among Texas faculty — 52.9% of those considering leaving cited pay anxiety, the survey found. 

Long-term challenges

In Florida, 84.9% of faculty said they would not recommend the state as a place to work in academia.

Roughly two-thirds of Texan and Georgian respondents, 63.3% and 64.2% respectively, would not recommend that out-of-state faculty seek employment in their state. 

Without those recommendations, Georgia could face a tough time hiring. More than a third of faculty noticed university job postings receiving less interest and a lower quality of applicants, the survey said. They also said the candidates seemed to express hesitancy during the interview process.

Over a quarter of Georgia faculty said they knew of academic positions — which are often highly competitive — being turned down at offer.

About a third of Georgia respondents, 32.7%, said they don’t plan to remain in higher education long term. Similarly, 30% of Texas respondents said they don’t intend on remaining in academia long term.