The States Take Aim at Tenured Professors

At 66, Darrell Fasching wasn't planning to retire from his job as a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He changed his mind when he was offered a year's salary—about $90,000—to step down and give up tenure rights earned over almost three decades at the school. By taking the cash, he joined hundreds of professors at public universities across the U.S. who have been coaxed into retirement with offers of as much as two years' pay.

Faced with 2012 deficits estimated at a total of $140 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states are looking to their university systems for savings, even if it means circumventing the once-sacrosanct tenure system. "Most states have horrific budget problems, and they haven't dealt with the kinds of cuts in higher education that are going to be necessary," says Roger Meiners, who teaches economics at the University of Texas at Arlington and has written a book about tenure. "These buyouts will become more common."

The push to replace expensive tenured professors comes after states cut support for colleges and universities. Funding fell 3.5 percent in fiscal 2010, to $75.2 billion, after a similar drop in 2009, according to the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University in Normal. The buyouts also make business sense: Pay for tenured professors averages $117,000 a year at the top 200 U.S. public universities, according to the American Association of University Professors. Annual contracts for replacement instructors cost an average $52,500, the group said in an April report.

Florida, which may face a deficit of $3 billion-plus in the next fiscal year, cut funding for its 11 public universities by 22 percent from 2008 to 2010. Fasching says the state's bleak fiscal outlook led him to grab the buyout. "Things aren't looking any better for next year," he says.

Texas A&M University in College Station persuaded 104 professors to retire, says Karan L. Watson, the interim provost. At the University of Texas in Austin, 27 of 88 eligible professors—those whose age and years worked added up to 93 or more—in the College of Liberal Arts accepted buyouts totaling two years of salary, says Gary Susswein, a spokesman. The buyouts may save the two Texas schools more than $15 million a year combined, say Watson and Susswein.

Even some private colleges and universities, which have cut budgets because of falling endowment returns and rising competition for tuition dollars, are considering culling senior faculty. At Harvard, retirement incentives were offered to 176 professors 65 or older with at least 10 years on the job, according to last year's annual faculty report. It said 46 of them, with a median age of 70, accepted.

John Curtis, research director at the American Association of University Professors, warns that the departure of the most seasoned professors may prove damaging down the line. "Experienced and active faculty members who will be leaving and replaced in the short-term are going to be followed by people who are much more transient," he says.

The bottom line: State universities and even some private colleges are culling senior faculty members to trim budgets.

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