rofs offered benefits to retire

by Melanie Evans

Medical School administrators, wrestling tight budgets and pressures to reinvigorate the college, are considering an early retirement proposal for senior faculty.
The one-time-only offer would release professors from their full-time obligations and the University’s payroll, but not from the professional networks many faculty cultivate during the span of an academic career.
If approved, the proposed program would trade tenured staff members a financial bonus and free-agent status — the ability to teach and research at the University on a contractual basis — for the finite resources allocated to their annual salary and benefits.
“The program honors what people have done and our desire to keep them close to us,” said Dr. Alfred Michael, dean of the Medical School “There is something positive in this for everyone.”
Tenured professors could qualify for the retirement package by adding their age and years of service at the University. If the sum meets or exceeds what faculty members are calling “the rule of 80” — a total of 80 years — the retirement option is theirs to accept or reject.
The proposal would alleviate a two-year imbalance in the college’s $280 million operating budget and free up resources to recruit and hire junior faculty members. Under federal law, professors are not subject to a mandatory retirement age.
However, medical school administrators caution that the proposal is still tentative, and has yet to be approved by the University’s central administration.
A decision is expected within the next month.
Weighing the options
A preliminary copy of the proposal began circulating among the University’s central administration and the college’s 23 department heads in February.
The proposal is one of several initiatives the dean endorsed in the college’s first State of the Medical School Address in late January.
In April 1997, Michael became the fourth dean in five years to head the Academic Health Center’s largest and sometimes-controversial college.
Formerly the chairman of the pediatrics department, Michael inherited a school rocked by internal re-engineering, the sale of University Hospital, and caustic debate over tenure reform.
Loss in clinical revenue and a decrease in federal support for medical education eroded the school’s rainy day funds, said Pete Mitsch, the college’s finance director.
The stress in the medical school’s budget has administrators groping for alternate ways to bring the school’s finances back in line while keeping the college competitive.
Robert Bruininks, executive vice president and provost, said approval of the program from central administration will depend on its impact on academic research and outreach programs, as well as the program’s cost and overall effect on the University.
Administrators can only estimate the financial costs of the program’s incentives: an increase in salary, maintaining office staff or support staff members, Mitsch said.
However, Mitsch also said that if 30 faculty members accept the plan, as is expected, the medical school can expect a first-year payout of about $3 million to $4 million.
Revenue from clinical practice and grants will help the college earn a return on their investment as junior faculty members fill in vacated positions.
Michael said he is unsure how many professors the college will replace, or how many will be tenure track positions. The outcome will rely on the school’s progress under the new strategic initiative, he said.
“It’s like steering a ship,” Michael said. “Sometimes you have major course corrections, and sometimes you have minor ones. So I can’t say absolutely we will replace person for person in every program.”
Mitsch added that establishing new hires is costly. Launching programs like University President Mark Yudof’s molecular and cellular biology initiative is difficult without the surplus cash to cover the costs of recruiting and support staff members, he said.

Changing of the guard
The turnover from senior to junior faculty members comes at more than a monetary cost to the University. Senior faculty members — often experts in their fields — draw prestige, students and revenue to their divisions. Although not as actively involved as junior faculty who are at the apex of their careers, experienced professors serve as mentors for younger faculty within their departments.
The proposal was created precisely for faculty members like microbiology professor Martin Dworkin. At age 70, the professor has performed nearly 40 years of his research in a 13th floor lab of the Mayo Memorial Building.
Dworkin said financial incentives and relief from the pressure to produce research tailored to attract grant funding factored into the veteran scientist’s resolution to accept the proposal if it is extended.
“I really hadn’t planned on retiring until it was made clear it would be an appropriate thing to do,” Dworkin said.
“I had been thinking about it. This stimulated me to really get on the mark or get off the mark, and it became clear it was the right thing to do,” he said.
But under a soft laugh, the professor confessed a stronger motive driving his decision.
“My wife and I have been married for 41 years,” he said “she has been very patient with me.”
With a slight smile, Dworkin, raised his eyes from his favorite workbench and squared his shoulders.
“I owe her.”
The decision doesn’t come easy for Dworkin because the possibility of retirement means letting go of a lifetime of day-to-day research and teaching.
“So much of our identity is defined by the work that we do,” Dworkin said. “You stop doing that work and the question is, ‘Who are you?'”
Like most University scientists, Dworkin has partially supported his lab and his salary with outside contracts or grant money for the duration of his time at the University.
The veteran scientist recently wrapped up his final grant from the National Institutes of Health and stopped accepting graduate students and post-doctorates. The University now bears the cost of his salary, benefits, support staff and maintaining his lab space.
If Dworkin were to accept an early retirement proposal, medical school administrators would recycle those funds toward recruiting and establishing a junior faculty member. Over time the new recruit would win grants — as Dworkin did — drawing revenue to the department.
The offer, if presented, would allow him to leave with dignity and affection for the University, “as opposed to being booted out,” Dworkin said.
“I think it’s appropriate to move aside, to allow turnover to take place, allow young people to come in,” he added.