Tuesday, March 08, 2016


Ask the Administrator: Returning Under a Cloud?

A new correspondent writes:

My question is, do I want my job back?

    I’m a retired academic, and have spent the last 15 years doing adjunct teaching at my local community college, where I have my colleagues and am well adapted, having circulated surveys for the adjunct faculty union and served on the bargaining team.  The past year and a half has been difficult for all of us, full-time faculty and administration included, as a new law in Illinois requires public employers to pay into the state university retirement system the equivalent of the entire pension for the year if retirees are paid more than 40 percent of their base salary before retirement.  At adjunct wages, it is unlikely that more than a handful would become “affected annuitants” under the law.  However, the administration announced that 80 part-time annuitants would be let go as of last July because they might be “affected” in the future.

To make a long story short, I am unusual in the light of the law because my pension is below the minimum for the law to apply, thus I am excluded from being any threat to the finances of the College.  Even so, I was included among the 80 released, and I appealed.  My case is currently being considered by an arbitrator.  There is a reasonable chance that I will win, and I would be happy to return to teaching.  However, I am concerned that I would return under a cloud, forced upon my administrators rather than freely accepted.  A negative atmosphere would affect me, my teaching, and my students.  I bear no ill will towards the administrators involved, but I can’t say the same for their attitude towards me.  At my life stage (79 years old), going elsewhere anew is not in the cards, and it looks like an all or none case.  Let’s say that the additional income would not be a factor.  Is this wishful thinking that I can return, or is it possible somehow?  What factors should I be considering in making my choice?

A few thoughts.

First, I didn’t know “annuitants” was a word.  Learned something new.

Second, I don’t know the personalities involved.  Context matters; the local microclimate may be relatively warm, or it may be toxic.  I’ll assume that it isn’t forbidding, or you wouldn’t be asking to return.

Third, I won’t pretend to understand Illinois state pension funding.  I know that the colleges haven’t received any operating aid for this fiscal year yet, and they may not.  They’re doing layoffs, furloughs, and all sorts of cost-reduction exercises that do real harm to people on the receiving end.  I can absolutely see why, in that scenario, administrators would harbor resentment towards retirees deciding to return and imposing significant new costs.  When you’re trying to decide who to lay off, having someone waltz in off the street demanding meaningful amounts of money feels like insult being added to injury.  I get that.

Having said that, though, “it’s not about you” cuts two ways.  I often implore my wise and worldly readers on the faculty side not to personalize it when administrators have to manage austerity.  It’s part of the job.  Fair is fair; I have to implore my fellow administrators not to personalize it when retirees assert their legal rights.  In both cases, it’s really nothing personal.  

Assuming that the personalities involved are reasonably mature adults, I think the key will be managing expectations.  If you come in expecting to restore the status quo ante, you are likely to be disappointed.  But if you come in just wanting to work with students, teach well, and be a good colleague, that should be manageable.  

In the standoff between the governor and the legislature, colleges are basically caught between the dog and the fire hydrant.  (I’ll let readers decide which is which.)  I’d guess that most people aren’t at their best right now.  This is not the time to Make A Point.  But if you’re willing and able to get past the drama of the last year or so and just contribute by helping students, I’d guess that any administrator worth her salt would be able to reciprocate.

Of course, all politics is local.

Good luck!  I hope you’re able to return to the classroom and make a contribution there.  And I hope the governor and the legislature decide, at some point, to act like grownups.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  If he returned, would he be forever marked?  Is there so much drama going on that it really wouldn’t matter?  Or is there a third angle I’ve missed?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

It's not just the administrators to consider, but also your other colleagues, both adjuncts and other faculty. Do they understand the nuances of your situation, especially in terms of the pension? Might they (unjustly) feel that you got your job back because of your union work? Might they (unjustly) feel that other colleagues were unable to return because you got one of the rare returning positions? Might they (again, unjustly) resent a 79-year-old appearing to be privileged at the expense of younger colleagues who are also trying to publish, or who also might have established careers but pose an higher financial long-term expense to the university? None of those perceptions might be fair, but that doesn't negate the possibility that they might exist. Should you return, you may need to be prepared to navigate that relationship, too.

Good luck!

Not sure what advice I'd offer to a seventysomething academic, other than "get a hobby."

As far as the institutional detail, some background.

An Illinois retiree has the option of taking his pension as a lump sum, or as an annuity. When interest rates are high enough, a retiree who has been in the system long enough might be in the position to live well off the interest (and subject to whatever the tax code requires for distributions of principal.) But to continue to participate in the state health insurance plan (with people vested after eight years and with assets accumulated for 25 years, there will be a lot of retirees younger than 65) the retiree must take the annuity.

In the rules, that's worded as "must annuitize balance." And retirees are eligible to join "annuitants' associations," which at Northern Illinois provide a combination political action committee, chance to socialize with other retired colleagues, and continued use of university electronic mail. (No thanks, I have other ways to stay connected.) Thus the strange terminology.

Because a number of state employees (I lose track of how many were in the academy and how many were in the other state pension plans) double-dipped, there are new restrictions limiting when retirees can be rehired, and under no circumstances can their part-time salary plus pension exceed their final full time salary. (I may have some of the details wrong, but there's no inducement for me to come back, whether I'm income limited or able to double dip.)

The shall-contribute-full pension provision is part poison pill (to discourage state employers from enabling double-dipping) and part method of raising money. The pension funds have their own trust funds and assets and constitutional protections. I'm not sure if the state is currently making required contributions to those funds, part of the difficulty these days is that the state wasn't making full appropriations to those funds a few years ago (that permitted the state to pay other vendors such as clinics more promptly). As long as interest rates and stock returns were high, that might have been spinnable, but of late ...

All the same, administrators might be coping with hiring freezes by bringing back annuitants subject to the various new constraints as a way of making sure that classes are covered.
Several additional issues I would consider include:

*Will you be continuing to collect a pension, and therefore not be contributing to the pension system with your work (will you be part of the problem of an underfunded system vs. if they hired someone else who would be paying in)?

*What are the global precedent setting effects (if any)? While people retiring out as adjuncts may very well become affected, it's nigh-impossible for full timers to become affected given the income differences- would this open a road for more retirees (full time or special cases like you) to return? Is that a good or a bad thing given the point above? How will the college make sure you do not become affected due to working at multiple colleges? [They all count, this is one of the problems with looking at rehires of retirees, how are you *sure* they don't have a job elsewhere in the system that will push them over the limits]

*Might there be a way to work out a system involving suspended pensions and return to work (currently we have an affected adjunct who has suspended his pension to assure we cannot incur liability based on his salary) that might benefit your colleagues if admin is open to such a thing?

*Is there need for more adjuncts in your area or is enrollment down to the point that a return to work is pushing someone else out (in terms of the likely response of colleagues to your possible return).
I don't see the problem even though (thanks to Stephen Karlson) I see that I guessed correctly how and why that system works as it does. My next guess is that their college HR department is utterly incompetent and thus unable to keep track of how much people can be paid under that law and detect when they might transgress that law.

I don't see any downside to going back. (But I also don't see why you couldn't go to work somewhere else. Some of my colleagues pick up classes at a local private college and make more than they would in the state CC or university system. Maybe you are in a field where the curriculum is highly local. My background is in physics, mathematics, and other physical sciences like chemistry where everybody teaches the same stuff.) Just realize that they don't need to rehire you. If they can find 80 new adjuncts to replace the experienced people they let go and don't suffer any negative consequences, they are doing what they could have done at any time.

So go back and collect new stories of HR and admin incompetence to share with your fellow retirees when you socialize with them. A good story should make up for any irritation they might have with you, assuming they have any at all.
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