How the Retirement Transition
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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:
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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