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.  

1) As I've posted before here and in my blog, the "retirement wave" was a fantasy with respect to R1 jobs. (We have been going through a "wave" at my CC for much of the last decade, right on schedule.) Without mandatory retirement or Deans who insist on more than a 1/1 load when no research is getting done, why not stick around for 40+ years, well past the age of 65?

2) Retirement incentives (or anti-incentives, where Illinois is not the only example) are remarkably effective at moving people out soon after they qualify for Medicare at 65. Even earlier if health care is covered until 65.

3) I seriously doubt if a premier R1 like Illinois will squander the opportunity to re-balance their faculty while still hiring only the best researchers in the world. Their issues have more to do with changes in what is a "hot" research area (funding) and student demand.

4) My sympathies on getting trapped with an empty cluster due to the economy, but at least you know which area is your first priority. You should get some really good applicants once those funds are available. Or is your problem that you hired too many in some of those clusters?

BTW - Don't believe the much vaunted STEM shortage either, particularly in biology. If there were a real shortage, pay would rise. It is about quality, not numbers, and the "shortage" makes it easier to go overseas to recruit quality in industry, just as is always done in R1 academia.
Why would there be a "wave" of retirements? The baby boom generation spans 2 decades, so the idea that "they" will retire en masse might be, make that is wish fulfillment. Enjoy your fantasies until the next financial crisis hits another state.
He wasn't talking about the baby boom generation, which is generally under-represented on the faculty of R1 universities, particularly in my field. (See link from my "name" to see one symptom.) The "wave" was based on the assumption that the people hired between 1960 and 1970 would all retire between 1990 and 2000. This was a bad assumption, as was the assumption that all hires would be of US citizens.

The retirement wave from my CC was more predictable, but some of the replacements in the early years were baby boomers.
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