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November 6, 1997

Assembly wants legal opinion on early retirement plan contract

Concerned about the wording of the contract that professors would sign to participate in Pitt's new early retirement plan for tenured faculty, Faculty Assembly has told University Senate President Gordon MacLeod to:

* Ask the administration for money to hire a lawyer to review the document on the Senate's behalf.

* Tell Chancellor Mark Nordenberg of the Assembly's concerns about the contract and the process by which the plan was developed. Faculty Assembly asked MacLeod to take "appropriate action" on the matter, leaving it up to MacLeod to decide what that action might be.

MacLeod said he would mention the two Assembly resolutions to Chancellor Nordenberg at the next meeting between the two men, scheduled for tomorrow morning, Nov. 7.

Discussion of the early retirement plan also is on the agenda for the Nov. 10 Senate Council meeting, which Nordenberg and MacLeod are expected to attend.

Details of the controversial plan are no longer up for debate. The Board of Trustees carved them in stone, in effect, when the board approved the plan last month. But it's not too late to make minor wording changes in the legal contract, said board secretary Robert Dunkelman — even though copies of the contract will be mailed to eligible faculty late this week, along with a letter from Provost James Maher and lists of the types of faculty who will and won't be eligible for the plan.

According to the administration, 358 professors qualify for the plan. The administration and trustees set a goal of enticing 30 percent of those faculty members to retire.

Under the plan, early retirees would receive payments equal to 1.5 times their annual salaries, up to $125,000, in return for retiring and relinquishing tenure rights. Tenured, non-medical faculty will qualify for the plan: (1) If they have completed at least 12 years of Pitt service and will be at least 60 years old prior to July 1, 1998, or (2) If the sum of their age plus years of service will total at least 85 by that date.

Faculty may sign up for the plan from Jan. 1 to March 31. Pitt's Human Resources office will offer a series of workshops for eligible faculty during that time, explaining tax implications and other details. Workshop dates have not been set yet.

The contract wording that bothered some Faculty Assembly members reads as follows: "The faculty member understands that the University is not entering into this agreement because it believes that the faculty member has any valid legal claim against the University. Instead, the purpose of this agreement is to provide the faculty member with additional retirement benefits as an incentive to relinquish tenure and leave employment with the University voluntarily, and at the same time protecting the University from the expense and disruptions which are often incurred defending against even a groundless lawsuit." Trustees secretary Dunkel-man and Keith McDuffie, a Hispanic languages and literatures professor who drafted an earlier version of the retirement proposal, said the paragraph was intended to make it clear that Pitt was not obligated to offer such a plan but, instead, chose to do so.

But the paragraph's first sentence worried School of Information Sciences professor Douglas Metzler, who proposed the Assembly resolution seeking a lawyer's help in reviewing the contract.

Metzler warned that a legal document saying faculty lack "any valid claim against the University" could be interpreted as going beyond an obligation to offer a special retirement plan. In the future, Metzler argued, a denial of "any valid claim" could be interpreted as meaning Pitt professors have no claim of any kind against the University — including no legal rights and protections as tenured faculty.

At a time when tenure is being undermined at universities across the country, Pitt faculty should not agree to "dubious" contract wording that could later be used against them, Metzler said.

"I would hope Keith's interpretation [of the contract wording] is correct, but that word 'claim' bothers me. I think it's perfectly appropriate for the Senate to request a few hundred dollars to consult with an attorney of its choosing," Metzler stated.

Nicholas Bircher, of the anesthesiology department, criticized what he called the contract's "exorbitantly broad phraseology" and supported Metzler's call for hiring an attorney to represent the interests of Pitt faculty. "We need counsel who are independent of the University to examine precisely what that [wording] means — not what the University claims it means, but how the contract would be enforced." In a voice vote, most Assembly members agreed, and approved Metzler's resolution.

After the meeting, Dunkel-man (whose office funds the University Senate office) did not rule out providing money for the Senate to hire a lawyer. "Gordon [MacLeod] can present a request to me for an augmentation to the Senate budget, and I'll consider it," Dunkelman said.

Senate Vice President Nathan Hershey recommended hiring a professor from Pitt's law school to do the job. Hershey also proposed the resolution calling on MacLeod to brief Chancellor Nordenberg on the Assembly's concerns about the contract. Several Assembly members said they hoped the chancellor would answer professors' questions and clarify the contract issue at Monday's Senate Council meeting.

Prior to the votes on the Metzler and Hershey resolutions, several Assembly members condemned the administration's handling of the early retirement plan issue.

The plan that trustees approved is less lucrative than the one proposed last summer by the Faculty Early Retirement Bonus Plan Committee, a group of professors and administrators who studied early retirement incentive options. The chancellor-appointed committee recommended offering professors two options: A plan that would have paid retirees up to 2.5 times their salaries, and a "phased-down employment" plan that would have allowed faculty as young as 59, with 10 years of service, to reduce their workloads by half and get two-thirds of their pay for a fixed number of months.

Herbert Chesler, who served on the bonus plan committee and who is interim chairperson of the economics department, condemned the administration for ignoring the "phased-down" plan proposal. The administration didn't even bother to tell the Senate it was rejecting the option, Chesler said.

"I don't knock the plan" that the trustees ultimately approved, he pointed out. "I think it will be attractive to a number of people. It will not be attractive to some other people. What disturbs me is the process that this whole experience required us to go through." Senate leaders are accustomed to making recommendations and discussing the merits of its proposals with the administration, Chesler said, but in this case the Senate was not consulted after the bonus plan committee submitted its proposal.

A process that began with a jointly developed proposal ended with an administrative fiat, Chesler said. "The Senate," he warned, "is in danger of being reduced to the status of a suggestion box." Chesler also said he resented comments by trustees chairperson J. W. Connolly about the early retirement plan.

Connolly said he initially opposed any early retirement plan at Pitt, but that Chancellor Nordenberg and Provost Maher talked him into changing his mind. Connolly told the University Times he didn't understand why Pitt needed "to pay somebody a bonus to do what you think they should be doing anyway." Connolly cited what he called the University's already lucrative contributory retirement plans, and asked: "So why do we then have to buy you out when, it would seem to me, in the normal course of events you ought to retire?" Chesler said, "I am disturbed by what appeared to me to be moral judgments made about the faculty by the chairman of the board. I would have expected more from him as a businessman than he gave to us. The comments that he made in the University Times I found to be very uncomplimentary and very upsetting. It's as if a moral judgment were being passed on our proposal rather than the business merits of that proposal being appreciated." Senate President MacLeod agreed with Chesler's comments about a widening gap between faculty and the administration. "I believe the early retirement issue was representative of that widening gap," MacLeod said.

Psychology professor James Holland, who also served on the bonus plan committee, dismissed the trustees-approved early retirement program as "a compromise plan" that will fail to meet its goal of attracting 30 percent of eligible faculty.

Holland blamed upper-level staff reporting to the chancellor and provost for "the long period of procrastination and slow work" prior to the trustees' vote on the plan. Holland said he wasn't criticizing Nordenberg and Maher themselves. "I think the world of both of them," he said. "I think they are visionaries, and I think they are trying to do great stuff. I think there have been some accomplishments and that things are moving now at the University. But they're not moving very well because of the staffs that work with them [the chancellor and provost]." Holland declined to criticize administrators by name, but described those who worked with faculty on the early retirement proposal as "slow, laborious and confused." "They almost seem afraid to reach an end to something," Holland complained. "It's really exasperating. It's also been very costly to the administration. All through that time, people put off retiring, which was exactly the opposite of the plan's objectives."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 6

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