Friday, February 26, 2010

Early Retirement Incentives

This story in IHE came along at the right moment. My state is apparently considering an early retirement program for certain kinds of public employees, which may wind up including many of the people who work at the college. Naturally, the rumor mill is aflutter. (I'm not sure if mills can flutter, but you get the idea.)

It's a strange time to try to purge staff, since we have more students than we can handle already. Reducing our staffing will only make it that much worse. But when costs are meaningfully separate from revenues, which they still are for us, it's not surprising that we'd be pulled in contradictory directions.

I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I've made no secret of my belief that part of the reason for the terrible job market for new Ph.D.'s is the lack of turnover in tenured positions. Assuming that at least some of the retirees would have to be replaced -- and in a time of record enrollments, that strikes me as a reasonable assumption -- then we could both cut costs and hire new faculty at the same time. Yes, some positions would probably be adjuncted-out for the usual reasons, but some would have to be replaced. If the pot were sweetened enough for some who feel ready to move on to the next phase, then we could hire some of the newest grads. And given the degree to which it's an employer's market these days, we could pick up some really amazing people. There's a real appeal to that.

On the other hand, though, these incentives are awfully blunt instruments, and they have weird side effects.

In a collective bargaining environment, the incentives would almost certainly have to be offered across the board to anyone who fits a set of bright-line criteria. (Years of service and minimum ages are the usual defaults.) There are good and fair reasons for that, but it also means a dangerous likelihood of the stars leaving and the, um, lesser stars staying. From a student perspective, this is not a happy outcome. (Yes, even at a teaching institution we have stars and lesser stars.)

Retirements can also be spotty by department, which can lead to some abrupt and very annoying staffing imbalances. With enough lead time and the flexibility to backfill as needed, of course, that can mean new openings. But if the lead time is too short, or backfilling is verboten, then we could easily wind up with, say, a top-heavy English department and a completely vacated math department. Not good.

Over time, too, early retirement incentives can become an expectation, and even a sort-of entitlement. I have had faculty tell me, to my face and in all apparent seriousness, that they're only still around because they're waiting for the next incentive. Once that expectation is out there, you live with it for a long time. A quick burst will be followed by a long lull. If the lull lasts into the next recession, then we're right back where we started, which is exactly what some people are counting on. It's a sort of perpetual motion machine that feeds on money, and that money has to come from somewhere.

Ethically, I'm a little uneasy with the idea that we have to exploit the daylights out of the young so we can pay off the old to stop working. Something about that just seems wrong. If the effects are generally positive, I'm willing to put my misgivings aside, but there they are.

If it were up to me, we'd have something closer to the Danish system. We'd have a generous welfare state combined with a relatively fluid, performance-based employment model. Instead, we have a winner-take-all system in which the immovably employed have to be bought off to create opportunity for the desperately underemployed. But you play the hand you're dealt.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an early retirement incentive scheme done especially well? If you have, what made the difference?