Letter to the Editor: ‘Click and Done.’ Professor’s Thoughts on Sudden Retirement

Courtesy of Hugh Miller"Click. And I'm done," writes Loyola professor Hugh Miller on sudden retirement.

I hovered the cursor over the “Send” button of my mailer. “Ready?” I asked Ann, my spouse, who stood by with her phone camera poised. “Ready,” she replied. I clicked, she clicked, and it was done: I had retired from 30 years of teaching, research and service at Loyola University Chicago.

It was — and is — a shock. So sudden, so unexpected. I’d known this day was coming for a while. Somehow the years have piled up, the waistline thickened and Ann and I have welcomed grandchildren into our lives. I’ve seen colleagues work on and on and on, their health failing, the keen edges of their wits dulling, so long that they retired infirm, unable to enjoy a “second life.” I never wanted that.

But, still, why retirement now?

Early this year, administrators put together a secret task force to figure out how to save money by lowering faculty compensation costs. The longer tenured faculty remain in their positions, the more their compensation increases. They move up through the ranks, they earn merit pay increases. Further, older faculty tend to teach less than younger ones. They are incentivized to do so by a university-wide system that rewards publication, successful grantsmanship and the like with teaching reductions. Some senior faculty jump into administration, which wins them even larger compensation rewards — and teaching reductions. All this is a critical problem for Loyola, which has a pitifully small endowment for such a highly ranked university and which therefore can’t count on revenue from the investment of that endowment to fund programs, faculty, etc. It must rely overwhelmingly on tuition revenue.

Rather than increase revenue (we are at or above capacity in students and seem unable or unwilling to fundraise to increase the endowment), it’s critical, then, to cut costs. One way to do this is to buy out the older, less teaching-intensive faculty and replace them with younger, more teaching-intensive faculty. (One could also cut the pay of, or fire, a lot of administrators, but somehow task forces never go there.)

This August the wraps came off the plan, now called “TF-VTIP” (Tenured Faculty Voluntary Transition Incentive Plan), a mini-master class in euphemism. In plain English: here’s a lumpsum payment and goodbye, as of next June. The university takes a one-time hit, paying all this out, but profits in the middle term. How much?

Ah, there’s the rub. Kayleigh Padar has ably laid it all out in her article on the front page of The Phoenix last week, so I won’t rehash all the details. Suffice it to say that it’s enough to warm the frozen heart of a Scrooge McDuck. But out here in the real university, the costs could be considerable.

We’ll lose a lot of our most experienced faculty, and a lot of institutional memory. But most disturbingly, the bean-counters upstairs will push with all their might to replace as many tenure-track positions with non-tenure-track ones, either full or part-time. Faculty in such contingent positions can be paid much less, and worked much harder, than tenure-track ones. Their recent unionization has given them more clout, but they still offer substantial cost savings over tenure-track faculty. (And they come with the added advantage of not being able to speak out freely when administrators make sketchy decisions, for fear of losing their jobs.) This loss of tenure would be catastrophic in the long run for the university.

The “Strategic Faculty VTIP Replenishment Plan” document goes on to say that “the Deans and other University leaders have engaged in a process of collective discernment to determine the optimal approach to replenishing and realigning approximately 100 budgeted tenured faculty positions left vacant by VTIP participants.” These “University leaders” have decided not to move quickly or automatically in replacing vacated lines, but to develop a procedure to keep new hiring “strategically aligned with mission, diversity, research, student outcomes and enrollment growth.” Since this is too important to be left to mere faculty, the “University leaders” have decided among themselves that the fields that need backing with new hires will be environmental health and justice, environmental science, cybersecurity, healthcare administration, public service careers, business data analytics, computer science, software development, healthcare informatics, geographic information systems, ethical leadership and bilingual social and health services. To this end, lines will be scavenged from other programs deemed unworthy.

What the “Plan” document doesn’t say is that the “other University leaders” consulted didn’t include the Faculty Council, the elected body which officially represents the faculty to the administration. It certainly was not consulted — I know, since I’m the secretary of it. The whole document is yet more evidence of a long-standing pattern at Loyola of top-down, command-oriented administration, all the while mouthing the pieties of “co-governance” that accreditation agencies need to hear. Should we really be re-orienting our mission toward providing free job training for companies like Google or the private insurance behemoths like Aetna? That should at least be debated, openly and emphatically.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for new, young faculty. Parents and students: don’t worry that when all the dust settles you will be saddled with inferior faculty. You won’t. Your new faculty will do a superb job of upholding the finest traditions of a Jesuit university education. You have my word for this. But they will do a better job with tenure protections than without them.

But it’s time for the administration to step up and make the faculty, those leaving, those staying and those just about to come in, real partners in determining the future of this institution. The very word “administration” comes from the Latin ad plus ministrare, or “to care for.” One doesn’t “care for” one’s colleagues by ignoring them and issuing unilateral commands. Care, as I have learned from my colleagues in ethics (especially in nursing), always means dialogue, response, consultation, explanation and respect between the carer and the cared-for.

Click. And I’m done.

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