Retirement systems that devalue the contribution of people, or constrain meaningful participation in post retirement work are dysfunctional, costly, and shortsighted. In universities, it is essential that valuable experience be put to best use for as long as possible to benefit students.
“Wisdom and penetration are the fruit of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure.”
Abigail Adams, in a January 12, 1780, letter to her son.
Illinois pension reform’s fecklessness is causing expert faculty and staff to leave higher education. University presidents understand the cost of losing seasoned faculty and staff on short notice: They recognize the ominous exodus of expertise as a student burden. Avijit Ghosh, senior advisor to U of I President Robert Easter, says legislators have little motivation to address the predicament.
Pending university budget reductions, retirements satisfy a sore need to reduce spending. Of course, nobody claims the blame. Elected officials did not create the problem; the State University Retirement System didn’t add to it; unions are blameless; seated presidents and chancellors are without responsibility: All are squeaky clean. The annuitants, who will receive lifetime benefit reductions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, if retirement is postponed, can’t be liable. In other words an elaborate web of forces is at work so nobody is accountable for a system that is kaput, and seemingly irreparable.
This is government bureaucracy at its zenith: A sad situation allowing everyone the opportunity of guiltless handwringing and no assignment of responsibility…a match made in hell.
Leadership must muscle up. Three quality-suffocating problems coexist: a retirement system that encourages the flight of more than a few of the finest, budget reductions that challenge effective universities, and leadership unwilling to confront the challenge.
In a piece called, “Our Universities: The Great Gray Fountain” the state investment in the professional life of faculty members was suggested to be $3.5 million over a period of 30 years (too low but illustrative). That investment is realized in Mrs. Adams’ concept, “Wisdom and penetration are the fruit of experience.” To allow that fruit to lie rotting on the ground is nearly criminal. Select faculty and staff should be able to retire and come back to work in a modified service arrangement that exploits experience and excellence, or incentives should exist to keep the productive and skillful employed.
For many universities facing budget woes the retiring positions are seen as a golden egg: decision-less, auto-pilot budget reductions, with no accountability, no leadership, no vision, no plan, no responsibility for an affirmative future in the light of changing circumstances. Instead, soul-searching discrimination about how and when to reduce payroll and possibly programs is required. Hard-nosed, bare-knuckle analysis is essential, and admittedly messy. Every empty spot must be rigorously assessed on the basis of mission. Service to students must be the question and answer for each human resource decision, including university leadership.
Illinois is not alone. An April editorial in the UCLA Daily Bruin looked at the increasing costs of pensions and healthcare and suggested they be offset by a pay raise – a kick-the-can-down-the-road maneuver.
In Virginia, The Cavalier Daily of the University of Virginia suggested that the Virginia Retirement System is the cause of increased tuition, according to the university vice president Colette Sheehy – a punt.
The Cornell Daily Sun reported last May that Cornell faced an avalanche of baby-boomer retirements but had a hiring plan in place – a field goal.
The growing number of retirements is rooted in the fear of soon-to-be annuitants that retirement systems are broke and/or broken. Another equally important force is a lack of trust in leadership, not for overt indiscretion, but for pervasive unwillingness to lead.
And be careful. Departing faculty are not a bunch of louts who enjoy the supposed leisure of tenure and then idle aimlessly about. There are some to be sure, but they are only a burdensome minority, like bad cops, insurance cheating doctors, or greed-possessed bankers. Productive human resources should be recognized, rewarded and restrained from departure by opportunity — not driven away by fear and loathing.
Our universities must find ways to answer the basic mission of serving the nation by serving students in their attainment of life aspirations. Reducing strained budgets by shipping off experience and wisdom seems a pitiful excuse for leadership.