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Poaching lawsuit brings Duke-UNC faculty movement under microscope

<p>Dr. Danielle Seaman</p>

Dr. Danielle Seaman

After a lawsuit was filed this summer, faculty movement between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has become an increasingly scrutinized topic—and former Duke administrators claim that the the two institutions have avoided hiring each other’s faculty for many years.

Dr. Danielle Seaman, assistant professor of radiology, filed a class action lawsuit claiming that she was denied a parallel position in the UNC Department of Radiology’s cardiothoracic imaging division because of an agreement between the two institutions to not hire each other’s medical staff and faculty. The suit—which was filed June 9—contends that the no-hire agreement suppressed competition and employee wages, therefore violating federal and state anti-trust laws.

According to the case file, Seaman became aware of the policy earlier this year, but the UNC chief of cardiothoracic imaging—who is unnamed in the file—believed the policy had been in place for several years after Duke had previously tried to recruit the entire bone marrow transplant team from UNC.

“The general rule was that we didn’t recruit there and they didn’t recruit at Duke—it certainly was in the years I was in the administration,” said John Burness, former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations from 1991 to 2008. “I don’t know if it’s ever been a formal agreement, but it’s certainly been a practice over a long period of time.”

Burness—now a visiting professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy—noted that he could not recall an instance in which a faculty member from UNC was recruited to Duke during Nannerl Keohane’s tenure as president of the University from 1993 to 2004. Keohane also confirmed that during her time as president the University avoided poaching of UNC faculty.

Recently, however, the former chair of the chemistry department at UNC, Valerie Ashby, elected to take on a prominent position at Duke by replacing Laurie Patton as dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. This exchange of an administrator to a deanship role between Duke and UNC is unusual, and Burness believes it is the first time this has happened, although the lawsuit only mentions the no-hire policy as it applies to medical faculty, not senior administrators.

“The question of whether Duke and UNC [or N.C. State] should attempt to recruit faculty from the other campus was always somewhat delicate,” Keohane, now Laurance S. Rockefeller distinguished visiting professor of public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in an email. “At least while I was president we tried to avoid aggressive recruitment. Although if a faculty member personally reached out and took the initiative, that made it harder to say no.”

In a restraint-of-trade argument, the lawsuit contends that the no-hire policy suppresses wages by not allowing faculty to leave and join a competitor for potentially higher pay.

“The argument would be that I’m not free, like pro basketball players, to go wherever I can to get the maximum remuneration,” Burness explained. “From an institutional point of view, though, it is much stronger to have the no-poaching policy.”

Despite the case file’s claims that such a policy is detrimental to faculty from both schools, Clark Havighurst—a former professor in the Duke University School of Law who taught healthcare policy and antitrust law for more than 40 years—also believes that this agreement would be beneficial to both institutions in the long run.

“You’d probably find relatively few instances where Duke and Carolina have poached each other’s faculty,” Havighurst wrote in an email. “This is probably a matter of mutual restraint as much as explicit agreement, however, as each school or department would hesitate to irritate the faculty at the neighboring institution, thus undermining collegial and personal relations that are undoubtedly beneficial to each.”

Other possible justifications for the no-hire agreement described in the lawsuit are a wider market for faculty talent beyond Duke and UNC and the detrimental consequences of poaching patients along with medical faculty.

Despite the potential for restraint-of-trade, both Keohane and Burness emphasized the importance of a healthy long-term relationship between Duke and UNC when considering the no-hire policy.

“Now because of the cutbacks at Carolina, Duke’s compensation is better for faculty. [If not for this agreement], Duke would start poaching like crazy, and that would not be good for Carolina and not for Duke in the long run either,” Burness said.

Keohane explained that one of her main priorities as president was building closer relations between the two schools, which is reflected in the Robertson Scholars Program, a joint scholarship for undergraduates from both schools, and the creation of the Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professorship, a joint faculty chair to promote collaboration between the institutions.

“The financial challenges faced by public universities [like UNC] may have exacerbated this problem,” Keohane wrote about avoiding recruitment of UNC’s faculty. “But I think the principle is important and hope it is still honored. UNC-Chapel Hill has always been one of the finest universities in the US; historically it has been a great source of pride and joy to the people of North Carolina.”

Although the tension between Duke and UNC in athletics is well-known, Burness noted their academic relationship has always been strongly collaborative, as is the case with many university pairs such as Harvard and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University and The University of California-Berkeley.

“My sense is that the current policy serves both the state and the institution, and in the long run serves the individual,” Burness said. “And it really is true that each institution is stronger if the other institution is strong. It keeps both moving forward.”

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