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UNC system lacks funds to buy out tenured faculty

Plans to offer buyout packages to tenured faculty have been discussed as a viable option to cut costs and find savings at universities in the state.

But UNC-system administrators say there’s no money — even for a program to save money.

In preparation for state funding cuts earlier this year, administrators considered using the buyout option to lure tenured faculty into retiring early.

Universities ended up absorbing a cut of 15.6 percent, or $414 million, in funding from the state. A “retirement incentive package” recommended in Gov. Bev Perdue’s budget proposal did not make it into the final version of the state budget enacted in June, Charlie Perusse, vice president for finance for the UNC system, said in an email.

But even without the state funding, some faculty view the buyout plans as a welcome chance to leave rather than be forced out due to budgetary constraints.

Michael Green, faculty president at UNC-Charlotte, said faculty members approached the school’s chancellor at the start of the fall semester about potential buyout plans. But the school’s budget would not sustain the buyouts, he said.

“In one unit on campus, we have five individuals who are past traditional retirement age who are holding on with the hope that a retirement package is forthcoming,” he said. “That probably won’t happen.”

Betsy Brown, vice provost for faculty affairs at N.C. State University, said the school has not set aside funds for any type of early retirement or buyout packages for tenured faculty.

She said encouraging tenured faculty to leave would not necessarily benefit universities strapped for funding. For example, it might be difficult to hire replacement faculty in research-intensive science fields for rates lower than retiring faculty.

“When these programs have been proposed, the assumption is that you either don’t replace the faculty members that retire or if you do replace them, you will have to spend less for the new faculty member,” she said. “It’s not a guarantee that campuses would save money on every one of those transactions.”

Faculty also participate in the system’s phased retirement program, enabling schools to pay tenured faculty less for a reduced workload during a three-year span.

While UNC-system schools lack the financial means to provide full buyout packages for faculty, other universities nationwide have offered tenured faculty buyout plans as a long term strategy to cope with state funding cuts.

The University of Nevada-Las Vegas received 48 bids this summer from tenured faculty for its buyout program, saving an initial total of $6.34 million in salaries and benefits but at an up-front cost of about $7.5 million.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors, said recent faculty buyout programs contribute to a trend of universities hiring more adjunct and part-time faculty — which might be better for schools’ financial rather than academic operations.

“If there’s this financially motivated proposal to provide retirement incentives, then you may be losing some of your very best faculty,” he said. “It really all boils down to an academic quality issue.”

Universities in the state have also struggled to keep the faculty they currently have in place.

The UNC system retained only 37 percent of faculty who received job offers from other universities last year, a concern for the academic quality of institutions, said Phil Dixon, chairman of the Board of Governors’ personnel and tenure committee.

Brown said discussions about whether to buy out tenured faculty could crop up again in the future.

“I certainly don’t think it’s off the table,” she said. “But I don’t see it on the front burner right now.”

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