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April 16, 1998

Early retirements have physics & astronomy dept. scrambling

Frank Tabakin, who chairs the Department of Physics and Astronomy, woke up in a panic one morning in January. A dozen of his department's 35 full-time-equivalent professors were eligible for Pitt's new early retirement incentive program for faculty, he knew.

What if most or all of them took it? Not that Tabakin hadn't considered the possibility before, but the panic attack sent him "scurrying around" in earnest, he recalls, to make sure department courses would be covered next year.

As it turned out, eight professors from physics and astronomy signed up for the early retirement plan. But an additional faculty member has been diagnosed with a serious illness (it's uncertain whether he'll be able to teach next year) and another recently had triple bypass surgery.

"A lot of people have been pitching in, and I think we're going to make it," Tabakin says. "Then again, I tend to be optimistic." Tabakin says the department's "patchwork strategy" for covering classes next year includes:

* Professors, including Tabakin, agreeing to teach overload schedules. "People have been wonderfully cooperative in agreeing to take on additional courses," the department chairperson points out. "That includes some people I really didn't expect would react that way."

* Several emeritus faculty volunteering to teach courses for free.

* Carnegie Mellon physics faculty agreeing to teach courses next year for a joint Pitt-CMU advanced graduate program. "Our department and their department take turns teaching courses for this program. Next fall was scheduled to be our turn, but CMU agreed to teach the courses instead," Tabakin says.

Physics and astronomy also hopes to hire substitute instructors and graduate students to cover some classes, he adds.

One casualty next year of the early retirement plan will be the department's Discovery Physics course, a computer- and laboratory-based undergraduate course that's taught in a three-semester sequence.

"It's a great course, and it's especially popular with engineering students," Tabakin said. "The problem is, it's a small class, with just 20-25 students, and we can't staff it" — meaning the department has canceled the sequence for fall 1998, and spring and fall 1999.

"When you lose as many faculty members as we will, you have to make tough choices. And unfortunately, it's the smaller courses that tend to get cut because they're less cost-effective," Tabakin says.

Like other Pitt academic units, physics and astronomy is in a holding pattern pending word from the Provost's office on faculty hiring for the next fiscal year. "My sense is that it will be another couple of months before things start moving again," Tabakin says.

— Bruce Steele

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