Late this week, I received a letter from our longest serving faculty member. This person has served for over 50 years as a full-time faculty member and continues to be an excellent teacher, an outstanding colleague and a respected scholar. The letter started off by stating “Much to my own dismay, I have come to the conclusion that now is indeed the time to begin the process of my retirement.” The letter continues by noting that “there are moments when inevitability takes precedence over all else and I must defer.”
This faculty member will be retiring at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year when she will have completed 54 years of service. Prior to that time she plans to maintain the same sustained high level of activity that has characterized her decades of service up to this time. In addition she plans to help create a new institute on campus and plan a detective-fiction conference. As you can tell, this person has been and continues to be a tremendous asset to the University and she will be missed.
Not every career works as smoothly. When I first arrived at Hofstra there was a person who was both an excellent teacher and a nationally recognized scholar. This person was one of a handful of Hofstra faculty that I had heard of prior to joining Hofstra. But this person never wanted to leave even though, over the years, the person’s abilities declined until what remained was a shadow of the original outstanding scholar/teacher. No colleague ever spoke to this person about what was happening but many colleagues suggested to department chairs and deans that it was, and had been for a number of years, clearly time for the person to go.
When is the right time to go? The easy answer is when you are still at the top of your game, or in baseball terms, when you are still a 300 + hitter. Life and finances sometimes makes that hard to do. Lack of feedback also makes it hard to do. I never cease to be amazed when faculty or administrators come to talk to me about the diminished skill set of a colleague without every talking to the colleague, even though this happens on a regular basis. Why can’t they talk first to the person they are talking about? Students also tend to talk to other students about faculty but you can’t expect them to talk to the faculty member about these issues even though they are being shortchanged. Teacher evaluation programs can help but that feedback alone may not be sufficient.
For someone who has served many years, a soft landing is essential. On-going comprehensive feedback is also essential. The feedback can’t just be there when everything is going well. With that combination together with the common sense of the overwhelming majority of faculty, I think the answer to when is the right time to retire will be clear.