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  • Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

March 24, 2013 - 5:02pm

One of our leading faculty members announced last week that he would be retiring and relocating at the end of this academic year.  The deciding factor seems most likely to be the impact of Hurricane Sandy on his house and on his life. I hoped he would change his mind.  His retiring is certainly not in the best interests of his department and his school; it likely is in his best interest, given the circumstances.

Another leading faculty member is out this semester, recovering from a serious illness.  The illness surprised us all; in his previous decades of service, this person was almost never out for even a day.

In higher education, as in every other area, life intervenes and change happens.  We all love to be in control and follow our plan but the reality is that we often are not. Decisions are reversed; direction is changed; we are changed.  I think about this every time I make a long term personnel recommendation.  When someone stands for tenure you review the record of the candidate during his or her tenure probationary period.  Those six years are critical determinates of the future.  If the teaching excellence is there; if the scholarly productivity is there; if the service is there; and if the need is there the person is awarded tenure and along with it what can be lifetime job protection.  I am pleased to make these positive recommendations and they are inevitably well deserved.

Subsequent to that time, the overall excellence that was there at the moment tenure was awarded continues for most of our colleagues.  But life intervenes for some and over time, life more and more intervenes.  When topnotch individuals leave or become ill, there is a negative effect on the University.  The same negative effect can happen even if people stay, if they have gone through changes that adversely impact performance.  The person may no longer be what he or she was at the time of tenure or at the time of promotion to full professor but handling such situations is a challenge for all of us.  When I was tenured, I was in my very early 30’s.  At the time there was a mandatory retirement age of 65 so the limit on my tenure was almost 35 years.  Subsequently, mandatory retirement moved to 68; then to 70; and then there was no longer any mandatory retirement.  I don’t believe in mandatory retirement.  When it was in place we lost some terrific colleagues.  But we also lose something valuable when it is no longer in place and that is the natural time for people to retire.

What do you do when someone should retire, but doesn’t?  When someone changes – for whatever reason – but the changes adversely impact job performance.  What do you do when life intervenes but not in a positive way?  Post tenure review can help and should be a regular expectation.  Colleagues can also help in these situations.  Bringing issues to someone’s attention instead of looking the other way is a positive and yet we often find it hard to do.  We need to enhance communication even if it is easier to say less rather than more.  All of us can do better in this regard and in a time when assessment is more and more expected across the board, assessment of personnel needs to be a critical part of the equation.  And, as is always the case with assessment, changes may be necessary so that continuous improvement is in place and the assessment is followed by the proper course of action.


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