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November 6, 1997


Retirement plan: Another Bridge to Nowhere

To the editor:

When I first moved to Pittsburgh, the city had a bridge extending almost across the Allegheny River. This bridge, nicknamed "The Bridge to Nowhere," seemed to be a permanent structure with no evidence that the rest of it was ever going to be built. I surmised that it was the result of some grand political compromise. I could imagine some politicians stridently opposed to spending money to build the bridge, and another group of visionary politicians seeing great value in a bridge and highway system easing the flow of commerce between the Ohio River Valley and Pittsburgh. I imagined the heavy negotiations that produced the Bridge to Nowhere. The visionaries got less than a whole bridge and the fiscal conservatives spent less money than a completed bridge would have cost. Of course it was still very expensive and the flow of commerce remained unchanged. What we had, in my perhaps fanciful interpretation, was an impressive icon for the hazards of compromise in which no objective is advanced.

The compromise between the chairman of the Board of Trustees, J. Wray Connolly, and the University's highest officers, Chancellor Nordenberg and Provost Maher, produced just such a "lose-lose" deal. The one-and-a-half times salary payment will be a nice windfall for those already planning retirement, and a wonderful reward for those who delayed retirement over the painfully protracted period in which little or no progress was made in formulating a plan. The compromise plan is destined to fail to appreciably increase retirements beyond the number that would have occurred without a plan. For most eligible faculty the compromise plan gives an offer than can easily be refused. The chancellor and the provost have been working toward the greater efficiency and revitalization of the University–our bridge to the 21st century (sorry Bill). A necessary span in that bridge would have been a cost effective plan that would effectively induce earlier retirement. The plan proposed by the joint committee would have motivated many eligible faculty members to relinquish their right to continue employment in exchange for a sufficient fee. This was a simple business proposition. It would have been of value to the University and it should have worked because it presented a deal valuable to faculty members. The University could have moved rapidly into a new age if the chairman of the board and the administration had not compromised to build another Bridge to Nowhere.

James G. Holland

Professor Department of Psychology


Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg responds:

At least as I understand Pittsburgh history, there is much more to the "Bridge to Nowhere" story, including a happy ending. After the inauspicious beginnings described by Professor Holland (which generally are attributed to poor planning and not to political compromise), the structure was completed. Known for years as the Fort Duquesne Bridge, the resulting span has played a critical role in regional redevelopment and remains an important transportation link today.

In one respect, it would be fair to call the recently approved retirement incentive plan for tenured faculty a "bridge" plan. However, it is a bridge that clearly is leading somewhere — to a better long-term approach to faculty retirement at the University of Pittsburgh. By their action, the trustees have taken a definitive step that will end our recent pattern of relying on large monetary incentives to induce faculty retirements. Such plans may have served a useful purpose in the past. However, looking to the future, leaders of the board and the administration share the belief that such payments are neither the most appropriate use of limited financial resources nor necessary to achieve our academic goals. Instead, our institutional progress will best be served when we are better positioned to invest in those people who remain in the University and are advancing its important work.

The bridge between policy approaches — this final "window plan" — can be seen as the product of a fortuitous convergence of pent-up retirement demand and short-term academic needs. As is true of most major decisions in an institution this large and complex, the final shaping of the retirement incentive plan required a balancing of different factors. However, that balance was achieved without in any way compromising our commitments to fiscal responsibility, to fairness in our dealings with affected faculty members, or to our progress as a university.

Obviously, there are those who will have other perspectives. Having worked on the earlier plan proposal, Professor Holland surely is entitled to advance his. At this point, though, both the provost and I must turn our attention to the implementation of the approved plan. If we are correct in our assessments, two principal benefits will result. In the near term, eligible faculty members attracted by the possibility of retirement will take advantage of this final window plan — reshaping their lives in ways that reflect their personal preferences and, in the process, providing an added measure of institutional flexibility. As was true with the "Bridge to Nowhere," though, the greater good will come over the longer term — when both individual and institutional planning begin to occur, once again, within the more certain framework of our existing retirement program.


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