Academic retirement

I worked for 37 years at the University of North Dakota and a couple of years in upstate New York before that. I have been “retired” now for nearly three years. This makes me an expert on serving a single institution for most of a career and retirement.

UND (my school) is going through some extremely difficult times. The bottom falling out of the oil industry in a Republican, rural state that had assumed oil revenue would be the solution to taxing citizens created a mess. There was no escape from the need to cut programs and people. You don’t do this without long-term costs to the reputation of the institution, but I guess if you get yourself in the situation, this is what you have to do. Among the strategies to address the financial problems has been the effort to get folks to leave with what to me seems a pretty weak one-year buy-out (no fringes or medical).

The local paper carried stories of some who decided to take the money and go. One such story described a couple of people I know and the sentiment was that this is not the way they wanted to end their careers. Poor fellows. I had a somewhat different reaction to some of the details. One of the individuals, a decorated historian, was nearly 90. My reaction? This individual has taken nearly half a career away from a young academic. I don’t care how exceptional you are – others deserve a chance to work.

I think there are two problems here related to the reality that academic work for most is a life-style and not a job. I won’t take the time to explain and while this is not true for some, folks who value scholarship don’t think in terms of money or hours of work. The job is their life. This is what annoys me about some folks being proud of working 50 or 60 hours a week. There was a time when I would have asked – what is it you do with the rest of the time you were awake? I know individuals who lived that way until it was time to turn out the lights.

My two inter-related (this connection is important) proposals related to this issue:

  1. Faculty members should stop drawing a salary at a reasonable age (65).
  2. Non-salaried faculty members who are interested in continuing an affiliation with their institution should be provided opportunities suitable to the academic life – an office in proximity to their home department, the opportunity to work with students (if students are interested), the opportunity to teach (again, without compensation), respect for their contributions to the institution.

I think institutions think they are providing #2 but there is never enough space or a real commitment to involve non-salaried contributors.

I left UND to move to the big city. I must say – I have fundamental issues with North Dakota and Minnesota is better suited to my personal values. The academic work I do I can do more successfully outside of the department for which I worked. The way you get attached to a specific college and department in many institutions may not suit your evolving interests. My lack of fit had nothing to do with the individuals I worked with and who supported me as their administrator for many years. My colleagues had respect for me and I great respect for them. I now do some teaching for a program that would be my more natural home (as a lecturer which is pretty much the same as uncompensated) and I have written a second book not having to worry whether my interests in technology were appropriate for a psychologist. So, what I propose here is not about me. However, I do think what I propose would create a more positive environment for those individuals who have a deep commitment to a given institution, but really should retire for the good of all.

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