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University of Montana surveys employees on early retirement

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UM campus

The vice president for research for UM, Scott Whittenburg, announced Friday that the university may reach a record in research dollars for 2017.

The University of Montana emailed roughly 400 employees this week with a survey about voluntary early retirements.

UM spokeswoman Paula Short said Thursday the campus doesn't yet have a target amount of money it would like to save through such a program or a set timeline. The deadline to respond to the survey is Tuesday, March 21.

"We are still in an exploratory phase regarding options for such a program," Short said. "This survey is an important step in understanding what our potentially eligible employees feel are the benefits or barriers to considering such a program."

The survey was sent to all faculty and staff who had worked there at least five years and whose years of service, combined with their age, totaled at least 75. In other words, a 50-year-old employee who had worked at UM for 25 years would be included.

In recent years, UM has been tightening its budget in response to enrollment declines, and President Sheila Stearns is exploring buyouts as one way to save money. 

In the Wednesday email about early retirements, UM noted it aimed to cast the net broadly, but that people receiving the survey may not ultimately qualify.

The seven questions include requests for age, years at UM, interest in early retirement, employment classification (faculty, staff, administrator), year planning to retire, earliest retirement possibility with adequate incentive, and biggest concern.

The questions also ask people to rank the most important components of a program, such as health coverage, career counseling, tuition and other benefits.

"This will assist us with identifying what might be most important to you in a possible VERIP program and what concerns you might have about participating in such a program," the email said of a voluntary early retirement incentive program.

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Reaction to the idea was mixed.

Albert Borgmann, who retired in 2015 but still teaches at UM, said he was pleased the administration was considering the option. He said one alternative is a painful and laborious process – retrenchment – that doesn't protect tenure.

"I think the university should extend itself in making the buyouts numerous and attractive," said Borgmann, in philosophy.

The faculty's collective bargaining agreement defines retrenchment as "the termination of tenured faculty members for financial or programmatic reasons."

"The fact that they have an early retirement program tells me that they're not hastily reaching for retrenchment, although they could," Borgmann said.

He said even the possibility that retrenchment is on the table would put the campus on pins and needles.

"The specter of retrenchment is just terribly destructive," said Borgmann, who went through one such process at UM about 30 years ago. "It makes people hunker down. It makes them defensive. (It) makes them less cooperative than they would otherwise be."

UM spokeswoman Short said the president has been asked questions about retrenchment but has not discussed it as a possibility at UM and is not putting together a plan for it. Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian also has not discussed retrenchment, said spokesman Kevin McRae.

Professor Michael Mayer, on the other hand, said UM doesn't pay its faculty nearly enough money to make early retirements worthwhile. UM brings up the idea every time there's a financial crisis, he said, but the math doesn't add up because of salary compression for longtime employees.

"The longer you're here, in general, the farther you'll fall behind national norms of salary," said Mayer, in history.

In Michigan, for instance, he said faculty earn enough money to make early buyouts sensible: "In many cases here, there's just not that much in the way of savings."

A handful of faculty earn a lot of money for a variety of reasons, such as outside offers and merit increases, he said. But he doesn't believe UM has enough faculty earning at high levels to save significant money.

Mayer also said saving those dollars means a different loss to the campus, one that could affect recruitment.

"A lot of times, these are the biggest names in a department or a school or a college, and those are the people who attract graduate students and enhance the reputation of the department," Mayer said. 

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