MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 1
September / October 2014
East Campus Development Plans
Vote for FNL Editorial Board Members
How the Retirement Transition
Could Be Made Easier at MIT
Getting to Kendall Gateway Through the
East Campus Planning Process
Issues for the Fall Term
Charles "Chuck" Marstiller Vest
9 September 1941 – 12 December 2013
Professor of Computer Science Seth Teller
Redesigning Hayden Library and the
Future of Library Spaces at MIT
HEX Subjects: One Pathway
Into the HASS Requirement
Improving Graduate Student
Financial Literacy
Can We Make Smart = Nice?
Request for Preliminary Proposals for
Innovative Curricular Projects
Nominate a Colleague
as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
from the Survey of Incoming Freshmen
Printable Version

How the Retirement Transition
Could Be Made Easier at MIT

Nigel Wilson

On September 1, 2014, I officially retired from the faculty position I had occupied at MIT for the past 44 years, the latest step in a process which started in earnest four years ago when I made the decision to transition to retirement over the following few years.
That decision was driven by a desire to have a different work-life balance than over most of my career at MIT in the wake of a couple of health-related events over the prior few years, but was also influenced by a recognition that faculty renewal was critical for MIT to remain at the cutting edge, and that it was time to give others the same opportunities I had enjoyed for many years. This article is aimed at making recommendations about how this transition might be facilitated based on my (albeit limited) experience.
While I am happy with the final outcome in terms of my retirement, I feel that there was quite a bit of uncertainty and stress over the past year which could have been avoided. The recommendations at the end of this article are aimed at achieving this outcome and I believe if they are enacted, there is a lower likelihood that other faculty would face a similar period of uncertainty as part of the retirement transition.

When I made the decision to plan retirement, I spoke to my department head and we agreed that I would go to half-time after the 2010/2011 academic year with a reduced teaching load and no major administrative responsibilities, but continue to run my research program (the transit research program). This research program involves commitments to up to five full-time research staff and one part-time research staff member as well as about 15 graduate research assistants with funding from research sponsors (both domestic and international) of approximately $2 million annually. At that time, I believed that I should be able to fully retire at the end of this period if another principal investigator had been identified for this research program; alternatively, if such an individual was not recruited, I would continue as the principal investigator, with salary support from the research program, as a professor without tenure – retired (PWOTR).

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight I realize that I was naïve when I made this decision, relying on my good relationship with my department head. In fact, there was no formal signed agreement between MIT and me describing the understanding; rather there were simply two short letters, one from my department head and the other from me, both of which proposed a three-year half-time appointment leading to retirement with a new title of emeritus professor.

As a faculty member of long standing with a benign relationship over the years with MIT, I did not feel the need to seek a more formal agreement.

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In what became a specific bone of contention, I did not realize the distinction between emeritus professor and PWOTR, assuming that the difference was simply whether one had research funds available to pay up to 49% of one’s full-time salary. I now realize that the PWOTR appointment requires the approval of the department head. More generally, I did not understand what alternatives were available to me, given that I was seriously thinking about retirement. Probably, I should have been more assertive in finding out about those alternatives.

Over the following two years, I worked diligently to implement this plan. In particular, I recruited a senior researcher who would be qualified to become the principal investigator on the transit research program and instructor of the key graduate subject (1.258) which supports this research, when I retired.

Last summer a new department head was appointed, apparently with a mandate for radical change. My new department head believed strongly that only faculty should lead research activities and teach virtually all subjects. Therefore, he was unwilling to agree to my request that the senior researcher who had been recruited with the expectation that he would eventually take over my principal investigator responsibilities on the research program and teach the graduate subject essential to continuing this research, actually take on these roles. Also, in the course of the next few months, it became clear that my new department head viewed my previously proposed transition to emeritus professor in September 2014 as a firm commitment to retire and play no further role leading the transit research program. So in his eyes, neither the senior researcher nor I should be the PI after September 2014. This would inevitably have resulted in the early termination of this substantial research program. That was totally unacceptable to me because of the impact on graduate students, research staff, and sponsors.

When it became clear to me that I was at an impasse with my department head I wrote to him notifying him of my decision not to retire, but rather to continue as a tenured faculty member and return to full-time status. This seemed to me to be the only way to protect my research program, although neither of my initial objectives in planning to retire would be fulfilled.

I then sought advice from various other colleagues and administrators outside my department and eventually made a transition proposal to my department head which led to an agreement for me to retire on August 31, 2014, but to continue my research leadership role as PWOTR for a further three years before becoming professor emeritus. Also, my department head agreed to provide financial support to permit the teaching of 1.258. I am pleased with this arrangement and only regret that it took such a long and tortuous process to arrive at it.

Recognizing that every faculty member faces different circumstances and that there are several aspects of my own experience which are probably unusual (if not unique), I think the following changes in the retirement planning process, as I experienced it, could help avoid other senior faculty being exposed to similar difficulties in the wind-down to retirement:

  1. There needs to be greater transparency and more effective counseling of faculty in terms of their options as they begin to consider retirement. Granted that I was naïve four years ago as I began to think seriously about retirement, a more effective counseling effort by MIT could have avoided some serious heartache later on.
  2. There should be a written agreement between the retiring faculty member and the Institute, which both parties sign, specifying what will happen and whether and under what conditions these terms may be changed subsequently. In my case none of this was clear nor has it been fully resolved what would have happened if the department head and I had not reached an agreement.

Department heads at MIT exercise considerable power, and department heads change periodically, so it needs to be clear whether an agreement reached with a current department head on a retirement transition plan can be changed unilaterally by their successor. This is one of the important roles for the written agreement referred to above. It seems to me that this agreement should be standard across the Institute and it is the responsibility of the Institute rather than just the department in which the faculty member is appointed.

Finally I urge the Institute to think about strengthening the existing retirement incentives in the interests of a faster pace of faculty renewal.

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