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In December, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced that it would extend the one-time phased retirement plans that were offered to faculty in five Harvard schools—Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Medical School, the School of Public Health, the Education School, and the Divinity School—last year. The reason for the extension, as cited by a letter from FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, was the popularity of the program. Twenty-five percent of eligible FAS faculty participated, as did 29 percent of eligible faculty from the other four professional schools, according to the 2010 Annual Report on Faculty Development and Diversity.
Under this year’s model, faculty aged 65 to 72 who will have ten years of University service upon retirement will have the opportunity to take two or four-year retirement packages that include part-time teaching and service obligations. Faculty aged 73 or older in the academic year 2010-2011 only have the choice between a four-year and two-year retirement package for this one year; after June 30, 2011, they can only choose the two-year option.
Even though it needs some modifications, FAS's recently instituted transitional retirement policy is a good program to have, and we're glad one has finally been put in place. These options do represent a marked change from pre-2009 retirement arrangements, which did not offer the possibility of such an easing out of academic obligations. Programs like these are something that a university like Harvard should always have. Transitional retirement is not simply something faculty seek, as an individual comfort, but one that they deserve as valued members of our community. Gradual retirement offers faculty a chance to mentor and guide others to follow in their path and allows staff and other faculty in their departments to prepare for their absence. This is especially important for the exact faculty who are eligible for these programs—those who have served the University for ten or more years and are thus institutional fixtures in their academic disciplines.
However, we see no reason why both the two and four-year policies are not extended to professors over the age of 72, past this year. To make this more than just a temporary solution, the policy should be extended to professors over that age. Fifteen of the 46 faculty members who chose to participate in the retirement programs last year took the four-year option, showing that there is an interest in this course, as opposed to the two-year one. We have no way of knowing the circumstances behind a faculty member’s decision to retire, and it may be that stepping down over four years is a much more amenable option, for reasons personal, academic, or otherwise. It seems unfair and somewhat arbitrary that faculty members over 72 should be denied as much flexibility to structure their retirement as those under 72.
Additionally, thus far this initiative has been positioned as an effort to promote diversity—the findings of the retirement plan were included in a diversity-minded report and highlighted the racial demographics of the retiring faculty, such as that 40 of last year’s 46 participating faculty members were white men. It does seem like we probably will get younger, more diverse faculty members, and this is a positive thing. The Harvard academic community will be enriched the by new and different perspectives that we get as a result. However, we're somewhat skeptical of the administration's billing of this initiative as an attempt to increase diversity, especially given the fact that those most likely to participate in the program—faculty members younger older than 72—are not eligible for the more lucrative four-year plan (which offers one year of full salary and three years of half-salary and retirement benefits, as opposed to the two-year’s plan of two years with full salary).
Dean Smith and FAS should be more honest about all the motivations behind this plan, at least a part of which appears financial in nature. There seems little uncertainty over the actual financial benefits of the retirement policy; if anything, it seems that the retirement policy will be a financial benefit to FAS, at least in the short-term. Most newer non-tenure faculty appointees make much less than tenured faculty. Additionally, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that it was just a coincidence that new retirement programs were offered a semester after FAS announced a $220 million deficit.
Ultimately, however, it’s important that people carry out their later years with grace and dignity, and it's high time that Harvard shows its faculty that it values their careers and their contributions with such a plan. Transitional retirement plans, unlike full-stop ones, normalize the process of gradually acceding one’s role within the workforce and make leaving Harvard a viable and positive option.
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