Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Retirement Waves

Academics of my generation probably harbor bitter memories of the mythical “great wave of retirements” that was going to open up all those faculty jobs.  Apparently, in Illinois, that wave is finally happening.  It’s driven by pension panic, rather than by normal demographic change, but a wave is a wave.

The press coverage focused largely on the pension issue, understandably enough, but I noticed this:

Wilson said the retirements were an opportunity to rethink strategic goals, and hire faculty more aligned to these goals, adding that firm plans would be in place by the end of summer. (Phyllis Wise, UIUC's chancellor, said during a recent visit to the offices of Inside Higher Ed  that the faculty vacancies will be a chance to reconfigure and hire faculty members based on emerging needs of the university and students.)

It’s hard to lose a lot of institutional memory in a short time, but retirements do allow for changes that would have been politically impossible without them.

In some cases, those changes are about resource allocation.   That’s tough when retirements are in dribs and drabs, but it’s easier when they come in clusters.   Staffing imbalances on the faculty side can arise over time for any number of reasons, though in my observation, the most common are shifts in student demand and the timing of when openings happen.  If your department had retirements during good years, it got replacements; if it had retirements in bad years, it didn’t. (My own campus experimented with “cluster hiring” a few years ago, then was forced by state cuts to stop abruptly.  As a result, some pretty striking imbalances took root.)  When a significant number of vacancies develop at the same time, it’s possible to shift some positions to address imbalances.

On the administrative side, the issues are a bit different.  We’re facing that now; some fairly aggressive shedding of positions over the last few years put off the day of reckoning for a while, but we’ve hit the limits of that.  At this point, retirements need to be replaced.  Deanships are typically much harder to fill than faculty positions, though, so having multiple openings at the same time is a scary prospect.  

Here too, multiple retirements can allow for rethinking the allocation of duties.  The trick here is avoiding the Purple Unicorn Syndrome, in which you write a job description that could only be filled by someone as rare as a purple unicorn.  In these days of reduced administration, when everyone is doing more than they used to, it’s easy to fall into that trap.  When you combine much broader scopes of authority with a legalistic search process, finding good candidates who meet all the bullet points is a real challenge.  When a search fails, then you have to scramble for some sort of interim solution, which can raise issues of its own.

This may all seem opportunistic, and there’s a sense in which it is.  But it’s an opportunism borne of a lack of alternatives.   On the administrative side, a thin bench puts limits on how adventurous you can get.  On the faculty side, of course, tenure without mandatory retirement makes some people simply immovable.  Cluster retirements are those rare moments when you can actually be strategic without running into one of those brick walls.

I hope Illinois uses this rare opportunity wisely.  It’ll face a rough year, but if it plays its cards right, it could actually come out stronger. It may even finally create some opportunities for a couple of generations too long shut out to get work.  Although the wave may have been generated by insipid fiscal management by the state, it may actually wind up being a blessing in disguise.