Wednesday, June 01, 2005


From Gold Brick to Golden Parachute

The June 3 issue of the Chronicle has a must-read cover story on the aging of full-time faculty. Simply put, the combination of lifetime tenure and the repeal of mandatory retirement means that nobody is leaving. The f-t faculty just ages in place, while younger scholars are frozen out of full-time employment.

I laughed out loud at a line from the token young professor in a very mature department:

“During the daily lunches, he says, his colleagues often bring up the subject of colonoscopies or talk about some provost from the 1970’s.”

Solidarity, brother.

The story is dead-on, yet oddly incomplete. It never mentions salaries, for example – if you replace a cohort at the top of the scale with a cohort at the bottom, a lot of fiscal issues simply go away. Replace someone over 100k with someone in the 40’s, multiply that by a dozen or two positions, and it adds up.

Strikingly, the article quotes a dean of a research university arguing for early-retirement packages, offered on a case-by-case basis. That way, a college can hold on to its stars, while clearing the deadwood.

(Insert Jon Stewart-esque raised eyebrow, tie adjustment here.)

I pity the poor fool who inherits the deanship next. Once word gets out among the 50 and 60 somethings (who are the majority!) that the way to a nice package is through underperformance, all is lost. Good luck getting anybody – anybody – to do anything. From gold brick to golden parachute. Your tax dollars at work!

Only someone who has never worked in a bottom-line environment could advocate something this horrifyingly stupid. It’s one thing to offer packages to the faculty as a whole, with certain bright-line qualifiers: x years of service, etc. That’s fine, and there are times in which it makes sense fiscally (though I’m still not sold on it, morally). The ever-present risk is that the stars will take it, while the deadwood will linger. But to punish the stars and reward the deadwood would be exactly wrong, and it would poison the well for a generation to come.

In the spirit of reality, let me offer the profession a compromise: we can keep tenure, or we can keep open-ended retirement ages, but not both. The consequences of keeping both are staggering, and we’re only beginning to see them. When the boomers pass 70, we’ll all go broke.

Breathtaking. Absolutely breathtaking.

Oh, I so so so agree with you on this one. In my last department, conversations FREQUENTLY began with, "Well, when this came up in 1976, we did blah blah blah..." Now, this kind of perspective can be useful, don't get me wrong, but it was a pretty constant refrain. And it wasn't balanced by exposure to/interest in much of anything that had happened SINCE then, because there had been so little turnover. I had wonderful, dedicated colleagues, but it really did create problems for that department. And I totally agree with your points about retirement packages, too.
The academy removed mandatory retirement ages? You have to be kidding.

Of course you're not.

I can hear the arguments now. "Screw the younger generation! They never bought me a drink!"

The debate couldn't have been much more coherent than that.
New Kid -- thanks! I suspect the issue is much, much more common than the Chronicle article suggests, though it's understandable why the Chronicle wouldn't want to go there.

Harvey -- blame this one on the Supreme Court. It struck down mandatory retirement in a late 1980's decision, with an effective date of 1994. Rehnquist strikes again! (If we had mandatory retirement on the Court...)

To my mind, the judicial repeal of mandatory retirement amounts to a monster of an unfunded mandate for the states and counties, but I've never heard a politician say that.
I also know of departments where the seniors won't leave because the admin won't promise to leave the FT line intact. Maybe that's also something to be addressed?
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