At 2 Texas Campuses, Faculty Buyouts Create Staffing Headaches

January 03, 2011

More than 130 tenured professors at Texas' two flagship universities have accepted buyouts that are expected to save their financially constrained departments nearly $18-million a year.

The offers, which included up to two years of pay for some liberal-arts professors, have provided a needed cushion for faculty members who were ready to retire, a bonus for some who wanted to move to other jobs, and new leases on life for a few lecturers who were due to be terminated. But they also created end-of-semester headaches for department chairs who had to quickly reshuffle their teaching rosters.

The retirement incentives are the latest responses by the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station to continued state budget cuts. State universities absorbed a 5-percent cut during the 2010-11 biennium and have been asked to plan for an additional 2.5-percent cut this fiscal year and a possible 10-percent reduction over the next two-year budget period, which starts this coming fall.

Both universities had already laid off adjuncts, lecturers, and staff members.

Tenured faculty members, whose jobs come with a guarantee of employment, got a carrot for leaving instead of a stick moving them to the door. The University of Texas offered buyouts over the summer to 71 tenured professors in the College of Liberal Arts. The criteria: A person's age plus his or her years on the faculty had to exceed 93. The professors were offered a lump-sum payment equaling two years of salary if they left at the end of the fall semester, and they had until October 18 to decide.

Twenty-seven faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts accepted the offer, and their departures are expected to save the college $2.4-million a year. Four more in fine arts and communication also accepted buyouts.

Texas A&M's flagship campus also extended offers to tenured professors who had worked there for at least 15 years. The 104 faculty members who accepted them received nine months' to 18 months' pay and can work through August 31. The university expects to save more than $15-million a year.

Filling Teaching Spots

The early retirements have freed up money for strapped departments but created administrative hassles for their leaders.

Six of the 76 faculty members in the University of Texas' English department accepted buyout offers. But because two of those professors had been scheduled to teach large sections of a required class, "Masterworks of Literature," in the spring, "we were suddenly looking at two classes with 200 to 250 seats each that couldn't run," said Elizabeth Cullingford, the department's chair.

(The department usually offers 10 sections of the course, each with up to 250 students, per semester.)

Ms. Cullingford was able to fill one teaching spot from her existing roster. "We found a willing associate professor who has taught the course before and switched her into it," she said.

But there was no one available to teach the second section. So department administrators added about 30 more students to each of the remaining sections, and some students who had hoped to take the course in the spring will have to wait until summer or fall.

These actions highlight the positive and negative sides of the buyout offer, Ms. Cullingford said: "As chair, you're thinking of your faculty members as people. One professor was longing to retire, but his 401(k) had taken a huge hit. This allowed him to retire when he wanted to." On the other hand, "We lost a couple of people we didn't expect or want to lose."

Ms. Cullingford also hired a lecturer to replace a professor who was scheduled to teach creative writing.

Life-Changing Choices

José E. Limón, a professor of English and director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas, decided to take the buyout offer even though at 66, he was at least four years away from his planned retirement date.

In January, he will begin a new phase of his career as a tenured professor of American literature at the University of Notre Dame, which accelerated its usual hiring process to assure him a job offer by mid-October—his deadline for accepting the Texas offer.

When he received the early-retirement pitch in the summer, "It was anxiety-producing, to say the least. For me, the overriding consideration was that I wasn't ready to stop working." He said he feels fortunate to have found a way to continue. The extra money is a nice bonus, he admitted.

While he is grateful for that, he is saddened by the circumstances that led to the buyout offer. "Some part of me is unhappy in the sense that it reflects the economic difficulties the university and state are going through," Mr. Limón said.

Another longtime faculty member in the Texas system is also using the incentive to move on to another university.

Thomas M. Woodfin, 58, had been an associate professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M when he received the buyout offer, which included nine months' salary. Mr. Woodfin was already considering a move to the University of Oklahoma. The buyout money sealed the deal. This week he'll begin as director of landscape architecture in the College of Architecture at Oklahoma.

"It's energizing. I'm looking forward to it," Mr. Woodfin said.

Some professors, though, are really ready to retire, and they are using the buyout to help pave the way. Thomas M. Cable, 68, is leaving the University of Texas's English department for more time, of "being at my desk."

"The best reason to retire is to have time for the reading and writing that I have been doing while teaching, although always in a way that has put teaching first," he wrote in an e-mail message from Burgundy, France. "There is a plain necessity of being in class at a certain time, and being there prepared, that does not hold for being at one's desk. Now being at my desk will have priority."

The department didn't have to look far to find a replacement for him in a graduate poetry seminar. Susannah Hollister, a 32-year-old postdoctoral student, will step in for her mentor this spring.

Hiring Back Instructors

At Texas A&M, each department was permitted to keep the money that was freed up through the "voluntary separation program," said Karan L. Watson, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. In some cases, department heads who were faced with ballooning class sizes hired back departing faculty members or laid-off adjuncts to teach a class or two.

Graduate students will teach a few more courses in English, said Paul A. Parrish, a 66-year-old professor of English at Texas A&M who is leaving but plans to expand his home office and continue working on projects with scholars around the country. He also plans to spend more time woodworking and gardening.

He hopes that the departures of senior professors like himself will mean that fewer adjuncts and lecturers will have to be let go.

Walter C. Daugherity, 64, a longtime senior lecturer in computer science at Texas A&M, received a notice in August that he would be out of a job by the following August. Lecturers teach a disproportionate share of the department's courses.

"When the termination notices were issued to all four lecturers in my department, it was a big shock," Mr. Daugherity said. "But with 12 months' notice, then the voluntary separation agreement, I postponed looking for a new job, expecting they would use the savings to retain lecturers."

That didn't happen, but Mr. Daugherity did receive a one-year reprieve, and he will be teaching through August 2012.

And like other laid-off lecturers, he hopes his department will conclude that it would get a bigger bang for its buck hiring them back than using their savings to bring in tenure-track professors.