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Feeling the Heat to Retire

March 15, 2011

Colleges around the country have both aging faculties and shrinking budgets, and many of them are wrestling with how to encourage senior professors to make way for younger colleagues. A college in Vermont may have given them a case study in how not to.

A senior faculty member at Vermont's Lyndon State College says that administration officials pressured him to take a retirement incentive package by telling him that a junior faculty member in his department would be let go if he did not accept. College officials, however, say theirs was not an either/or pitch — just one that made the institution’s current financial situation clear.

Ronald Rossi, a psychology professor who has been at the college for 35 years, described his private meeting with Lyndon State administrators — including President Carol Moore — last week in the college’s student newspaper. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, he said he was explicitly told by administrators that one of the two junior faculty members in his department would have to be let go if he did not accept the retirement incentive offer.

“They kept saying there was no pressure for me to accept,” Rossi said. “But, to me, it certainly felt like pressure.”

Lyndon State’s enrollment figures didn’t meet expectations this year — falling from 1,521 in fall 2009 to 1,436 in 2010 — while the other four institutions in the Vermont State Colleges system had record-high enrollments. Meanwhile, the state’s governor wants to cut appropriation levels for the state colleges to their pre-federal stimulus, or fiscal year 2007, levels. (This article has been updated to correct an error.)

Rossi could not say if senior faculty members from other departments who were approached about a retirement incentive package felt pressured as he did. Representatives of Lyndon State's faculty union did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

The college offered early retirement packages to 7 of its 57 full-time faculty members, 33 of whom are tenured. For a small institution like Lyndon State, that's a significant number -- and the retirement of seven faculty members could free up a considerable amount of money.

The average full-time faculty member at Lyndon State made $56,417 last fall. But the average full professor, the highest faculty rank and the status of all seven targeted faculty members, made $70,415 — the highest average salary in this rank in the Vermont State Colleges system. (The state's most expensive college, the University of Vermont, is not in the state college system.)

“I understand the reason to ask people to retire who’ve been around for a while,” said Rossi, who noted his department is drafting a response to his situation for the administration. “It was just the way it was done here did not seem right to me. It was not good. They could have arranged to have a financial consultant come in and talk through retirement. They could have done anything other than rush to get this through.”

Rossi said he was given only three or four weeks to make a decision, which he argued was not a “reasonable amount of time” given the gravity of the situation. Ultimately, Rossi said he is not considering the offer made to him, adding that he would like to make sure he is “financially secure” before retiring.

Communication Breakdown

Bob Whittaker, dean for institutional advancement, disputes Rossi’s account, arguing that senior faculty members were not being pressured into retirement to spare junior faculty members. Still, he said the college’s finances were brought into the discussions.

“Our intent is to offer the option so that we can realize cost savings through these retirements to mitigate the need to make more difficult decisions regarding personnel,” Whittaker said. “Our attempt is not to make an either/or scenario…. We really put that out there as a first step effort to see if we’re able to achieve cost savings in this approach. Then, we’ll assess what next steps we’ll need to take.”

Tim Donovan, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges system, said that “there is no playbook” for what Lyndon State administrators proposed to senior faculty, given that the institution has never had to actively encourage retirement in such a fiscally difficult situation. Though he was not present during the Lyndon State meetings with faculty, he said he had been working with the college and its faculty union to ensure that senior faculty members understood what was being offered to them.

Now that some of the dust from the first early retirement offer has settled, Lyndon State is working on a new offer. Whittaker said he could not provide details about the offer and to whom it was directed, as the college is “continuing to work collaboratively with the union to refine the retirement incentive package.” He added only that it was being pitched as an offer that would benefit the college and the individual alike.

“We’re trying to be upfront with all of our employees about the budget challenges we have and for folks to know that those challenge are severe in a system that is 80 percent tuition-driven like ours,” Donovan said. “This just puts out there that if there are faculty members who are considering retirement, that here are the options out there for them.”

Donovan said this type of targeted retirement incentive program is happening only at Lyndon State, due to its unique enrollment concerns. Still, when and if other colleges in the system have to make similar offers to their senior faculty, he said, they will be more cognizant of how they make the pitch.

“I think communication is always important,” Donovan said. “We’ve learned a bit. This is unprecedented. We haven’t done this before. Still, everyone could have been a little clearer in what the goals were here. More communication is just always a good plan. We certainly will have learned from the first time through.”

Making the Pitch

National experts on faculty rights say there are simple methods of making retirement incentive offers to faculty members without putting undue pressure on them.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors, said retirement incentive offers should never be made to individuals alone. Instead, he said the faculty union and the college administration should work together to frame a plan that can be presented to qualified faculty members jointly and without surprise.

Also, Curtis said the pitch should be made broadly as “one strategy to address a financial situation at a college” and not the sole strategy for doing so.

“It shouldn’t be presented to individuals as a choice: either take this or someone else gets laid off,” Curtis said. “Really, the phrase ‘or else’ shouldn’t come into the situation. It’s unfair to put an individual into that spot and link their own employment with the financial situation of the college.”

Curtis added that many public institutions, like Lyndon State, have union representation that can negotiate on behalf of the faculty, keeping them out of one-on-one retirement incentive pitches.

 

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