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When UNC-Chapel Hill wants to show how it stacks up against other schools in areas such as tuition, student graduation rates or faculty salaries, administrators make oft-repeated comparisons to the University’s peer institutions.

But which institutions qualify as peers depends on who you ask.

And as the UNC system looks for a new president and sets new goals, the peer lists UNC-CH uses for goals such as recruiting students and researchers could change.

For the most part, the schools on the tuition and faculty lists correspond to a set of peers defined by UNC-system General Administration. That list includes the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Florida, Duke University and others.

But for other purposes, UNC-CH administrators compare the University to flagship schools in other state systems — the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, University of California-Berkeley or University of Texas at Austin.

There’s also a more elite list maintained by the UNC Global initiative. That list includes Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and Brown University.

“You try to find real similarities in terms of what they have, their stature, and where you are,” said Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost at UNC-CH.

Having more options for comparison can create confusion and tension for UNC-CH and the UNC system, hindering understanding of which institutions are really held up against UNC-CH.

Using our peers

Administrators use comparative lists to evaluate its standing on goals ranging from retention and graduation rates to community service, but arguably the most important issue to UNC-CH administrators is faculty salaries.

The list of peer institutions with which UNC-CH compares tuition differs from the list used to evaluate yearly increases in faculty salaries.

Since tuition makes up much of the funding for faculty salary increases, including the money the school uses to keep faculty members who have been offered other jobs, the choice of peers matters.

Tuition increases also fund need-based aid and other programs. Administrators must reconcile a desire to keep faculty salaries high and tuition low.

The University shoots for better salaries than 80 percent of its peers and boasts that it keeps tuition in the lowest 20 percent.

But the schools UNC-CH uses for tuition comparison are often of lower caliber than those used for faculty salary comparison. UNC-CH tends to compete with different schools in recruiting and retaining faculty.

And even other highly ranked public research institutions can be useful when lobbying the state legislature to identify funding needs.

UNC-CH lobbyist Dwayne Pinkney said he contrasts the state support UNC-CH receives with struggling budgets at other schools. Michigan and California have drastically cut education programs.

“It’s not necessarily a comparison in which we’re leveraging support by comparing to those institutions,” Pinkney said. “But we want to remind our legislators that they’re in the driver’s seat in terms of making this institution and public higher education in North Carolina a leader, because we’re really the last one standing.”

The UNC system wrote the most recent UNC-CH peer list in 2006, about the time current President Erskine Bowles took over. He said the list took shape as a result of goals he set for the system.

“We have four or five things that we’re really focused on trying to get done,” Bowles said. “I believe by the end of this year, we’ll get there.”

His predecessor, Molly Broad, who led from 1997 to 2006, said picking peers involves sorting through a complicated set of characteristics.

Considerations include whether universities are public or private, liberal arts or more specialized,  graduate-study intensive or comprehensive. Factors such as religious associations, research status and size also play into that process, said Broad, who now heads the American Council on Education.

New president, new goals

Broad said most institutions revisit peer lists every five years, which means the next review could coincide neatly with a new UNC-system president. The next leader will be appointed later this year.

The goals of the president can affect the criteria for peers.

Those goals could be defined by the new president’s background. UNC-system presidents have come from the political and public-policy sphere, as well as business and education backgrounds.

But while a new set of peers could bring change for the UNC system, administrators said UNC-CH’s peers wouldn’t change much.

“I don’t think it will change for Chapel Hill because Chapel Hill in general has been benchmarking itself against the same group of peers,” Bowles said.

‘Tension’ in the UNC system

Differences between peer lists set by the UNC system and those drafted by the campuses can be problematic for administrators.

Some variation is to be expected. Bowles said individual departments often pick their own peers.

UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication uses five schools known for journalism programs as benchmarks, most of which aren’t on other UNC-CH peer lists.

“It’s good to have one set of peers for most things,” Carney said. “But any time you want to get down into detail, we need internal groups for our own purposes.”

Administrators said there were disagreements in past years about which schools should be used for comparisons.

“There was enormous tension five years ago,” Bowles said in an interview. “There was no trust, and I think all that’s been broken down.”

James Moeser, who was UNC-CH’s chancellor when Bowles took over, said the negotiation to develop a set of peers brought up differences between UNC-CH’s view of itself and the system’s.

System leaders were hesitant to include private schools, but UNC-CH administrators insisted that the school competes with those schools for faculty and students.

“There was always a certain amount of tension between Chapel Hill and the system over this,” Moeser said. “We didn’t initially agree, but we basically got 95 percent of what we wanted.”

The current list has five private institutions, including Duke University, and 10 public schools.

The private universities have much higher tuition and can also entice professors with better benefits than UNC-CH can offer.


UNC’s peers

The University relies on comparisons with peer institutions to set its benchmarks for tuition and faculty salaries — but the lists differ.

UNC global peers

-University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
-University of Pennsylvania
-University of Washington - Seattle
-Harvard University
-Johns Hopkins University
-Ohio State University
-Duke University
-University of Virginia
-Washington University in St. Louis
-University of Minnesota
-Brown University
-University of Kansas
-University of Chicago

Public research peers

-University of Virginia
-University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
-University of California-Los Angeles
-University of California-Berkeley

UNC General Administration peers

-Duke University
-Emory University
-Johns Hopkins University
-University of California at Berkeley
-University of California at Los Angeles
-University of Florida
-University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign
-University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
-University of Pennsylvania
-University of Pittsburgh
-University of Southern California
-University of Texas at Austin
-University of Virginia
-University of Washington - Seattle
-University of Wisconsin at Madison

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