Will College Professors Flee the South? Survey Shows a Real Chance for ‘Brain Drain.’

A survey found faculty members want to leave Southern states where DEI — and academic freedom — is under fire. The professor behind the survey breaks down its findings.
portrait of Michael Koretzky
Michael Koretzky
Read Full Bio


Michael Koretzky has been a professional journalist for four decades, contributing to media outlets as diverse as The New York Times and the National Enquirer. He is currently editor of Debt.com and has advised the student newspaper at Florida Atlant...
Published on September 21, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Cameren Boatner
Cameren Boatner
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Cameren Boatner is a diversity, equity, and inclusion editor at BestColleges. She's a Society of Professional Journalists award winner for her coverage of race, minorities, and Title IX. You can find her work in South Florida Gay News, MSN Money, Deb...
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

  • A new poll shows professors in Florida, Georgia, and Texas are considering applying for jobs elsewhere.
  • Those professors are angry and worried about recent legislation limiting academic freedom in their states.
  • Those polled cite California, New York, North Carolina, and Massachusetts as coveted destinations.

A recent poll of 4,250 faculty members in three Southern states shows almost a third are actively considering interviewing elsewhere in the coming year — and 1 in 5 already have.

While those professors cited low salaries as the leading cause (58.7%) of their desire to move, that reason was statistically tied to concern over their state's broad political climate (58.2%).

The Faculty in the South Survey focused on Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Those states have made headlines for passing new laws that impact universities in several ways.

As the survey stated: Academic freedom was identified by over 50% of respondents, while issues related to tenure and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) were mentioned by more than 40%. Shared governance, LGBTQ+ issues, and reproduction/abortion access were also significant factors for about 30% of respondents.

Why the Survey Stayed in the South

The survey was created by Matthew Boedy, an English professor at the University of North Georgia and president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP is a 108-year-old nonprofit that works to defend academic freedom.

Last October, Boedy conducted a similar poll just in Georgia. It focused solely on tenure, which the state's Board of Regents limited so severely that the AAUP issued a formal censure.

But after Florida and Texas legislators did what they did, we wanted to expand on that, Boedy told BestColleges.

Here's what Florida and Texas did:

  • In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning public institutions from spending federal or state funds on DEI programming. Last year, he signed the Stop WOKE Act and staged a hostile takeover of New College of Florida.
  • In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a bill banning DEI offices and officers. A month earlier, a bill to ban tenure passed the state Senate before being withdrawn in a compromise with the House.

We wanted to keep the survey to the South because that's where the state legislatures are getting involved, Boedy said.

North Carolina was added at the last minute because, while a bill to ban tenure there failed, Republican lawmakers this summer overrode the Democratic governor's veto of their own DEI ban.

A DEI Surprise

Boedy said only one survey result surprised him — that 40% of respondents were concerned about DEI.

I was surprised because anti-DEI bills affect certain faculty more than, say, chemistry professors, Boedy said. But now they're all saying it affects my job, regardless of our discipline.

One reason many professors might fear the DEI bans — even if those don't affect their teaching or research — is that a norm has been shattered. Boedy mused that faculty might be worried about state lawmakers coming for them next.

Specifically, professors worry about their research as much as their teaching.

As Boedy puts it, The impacts of these legislations weren't, I'm a lefty professor, and I can't say lefty things. It's I might not be allowed to do the research I'm trained to do.

Why Salary Matters Less

Boedy said some states are trying to keep their “brain drain” in check by giving newly restricted faculty raises. Boedy himself has received two mandated raises.

Here's the problem: That's all been eaten up by insurance costs and inflation, Boedy said. So that's not going to be the main reason that'll keep people here. Salary isn't going to keep them.

So where are faculty looking for work? The most popular responses were California, New York, and Massachusetts. Right after that was North Carolina — the state that passed an anti-DEI bill this summer.

I don't want to explain away the results, Boedy said, but I think there are a few reasons for that.

First, since North Carolina was a last-minute addition to the survey, it had fewer responses than Florida, Georgia, and Texas — hundreds compared to over a thousand for the others. Second, Boedy said North Carolina has some excellent private institutions that can steer clear of the recent legislative efforts.

Third, I don't think people know or understand what's happening there. It's more recent, and North Carolina still has a good reputation in higher education, Boedy said.

'Good Riddance'

The survey dives into the detrimental effects of political attacks and policy changes on hiring within higher education. Specifically:

About 50% of respondents noted a decrease in the number of applicants and candidates hesitant to proceed with the interview process. More than 45% observed a decline in the quality of applicants. Additionally, more than 40% of respondents were aware of offer refusals, leading to the loss of top-notch talent within their departments.

While that's deeply concerning to most faculty members, Boedy concedes it might be exactly what some lawmakers want.

The more radical right is definitely saying, Good riddance to you. They've already made that clear, Boedy said.

That's short-sighted, Boedy said.

Here's the reality of higher ed: There are celebrity faculty with the big grant money, and they're going to take that grant money elsewhere, he said. There are going to be ripple effects that we can't yet predict.