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July 21, 2016

Faculty hail simplified phased retirement agreement as sign of better cooperation

New transparency and a simplified agreement for faculty who wish to phase into retirement are being hailed as signs of greater cooperation between faculty and the administration.

In response to concerns raised by the University Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee, the Office of the Provost and Office of General Counsel have created a “friendlier” template agreement and plan to launch a web page this summer with FAQs for faculty who are considering the option.

Per a 2001 memo from then-Provost James Maher, faculty may request to move from full-time to half-time status as a transition to retirement. (

Requests are handled on a case-by-case basis and the change must be mutually beneficial to the faculty and dean or campus president, and be approved by the provost, said Laurie Kirsch, vice provost for faculty affairs, development and diversity.

In any given year, up to 20 percent of faculty who retire enter into such a transition agreement, she told the University Times.

The changes follow a 2014 grievance brought to the University Senate tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) by former English faculty members Phil and Susan Smith, who found several provisions of the transition document objectionable.

Rather than agree to the provisions — which included a lengthy release and a confidentiality clause — they opted to retire in 2014, though they had intended to remain part-time through 2016.

In early 2015, then-University Senate President Michael Spring reported to Faculty Assembly that the Office of the Provost was re-examining the wording of the transition agreements (see Jan. 22, 2015, University Times).

Progress initially was slow, but meetings earlier this year with Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer, quickly resulted in new wording that eliminates some onerous provisions and legal jargon, without a change in the policy itself, said TAFC co-chair Maria Kovacs.

Kovacs said she said she has found the new administration available, accessible and willing to collaborate to resolve issues, touting the “unprecedented” cooperation between the Provost’s office and Faculty Assembly — on this and other faculty concerns — as a potential signal of a new phase in true joint governance.


The Smiths told the University Times that they had agreed to the terms of their transition in discussions with Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences administration, but were surprised when the formal documents drawn up by the Office of General Counsel required them, in part, to agree to “irrevocably and unconditionally release and forever discharge the University, its predecessors, subsidiaries, affiliates, and their past, present and future officers, trustees, administrators, agents and employees, and the trustees and administrators of University benefit plans as well as the heirs, successors and assigns of any such persons or such entities from any and all liabilities, suits, actions, causes of actions, rights, damages, grievances, appeals or claims of any kind whatsoever, known or unknown…”

They refused to sign and instead shared those provisions of the document in a joint September 2014 farewell message to colleagues at the University and elsewhere.

“We feel we were ‘had’ and that the University needs to be fully transparent about what it expects, to say nothing of supplying a rationale for what seem to us to be excessive, degrading and insulting legal demands,” they wrote. “We feel that no one should be faced with the duplicity of agreeing to one document and then being sent another (about which you may say nothing if you sign but which denies you the phased retirement if you don’t!).  And, of course, all this is nonsensical because when you take ‘straight’ retirement you are not required to sign such a document, you just send in a letter stating your intention to retire.”

Phil Smith, himself a former department chair, said with regard to changes in faculty status, “Once upon a time, you’d get a letter stating ‘Here’s what you agreed to do, if you agree, sign and return.’”

He was surprised to find what seemed to him like a boilerplate one-size-fits-all document for any possible agreement between the University and faculty, rather than one tailored to the seemingly uncomplicated act of agreeing to the terms of a transition to retirement.

Susan Smith said, “The secrecy agreement seemed just obnoxious,” adding that other agreements don’t include those provisions.

The Smiths said they contacted previous retirees about the provisions. “Even though they were sworn to secrecy, some said they were afraid if they didn’t sign it they would lose their emeritus status,” she said. “It was shocking to me that a group of academics were frightened not to sign this.”

Unwilling to sign the document they were presented, they changed their plans. Said Phil Smith: “In order to retire, all we had to do was write a two-sentence letter to (the department chair) saying ‘We are taking retirement as of Dec. 31.’”

“It was an awful way for us to leave the University,” Susan Smith said.

The experience motivated them to pursue the grievance. “The reason to do this is to protect our colleagues. It does nothing for us,” she said.


The phased retirement option is a practice — not a formal University policy — which meant details sometimes were transmitted word-of-mouth, said chief legal officer Geovette Washington.
“That kind of thing leads to inconsistencies,” making the process more mysterious than might be warranted, she said.

She finds value in making a model agreement available for everyone. More transparency can help eliminate the angst and confusion that results from the black box of a process, she said.

“The terms that the faculty found onerous aren’t all that unusual in contracts. However, not all the provisions were necessary,” she told the University Times.

In modifying the language for a new template agreement, her goal was: “How do I get to a place where everyone is basically happy?” she said.

“Not everything they were concerned about got changed,” Washington said.

But she explained to TAFC what couldn’t be changed and why, and made the model into a friendlier document that simply memorializes a change in employment terms.

“A release is very important: it needs to be in there,” she said. However, it’s now simplified and expressed in terms understandable to non-lawyers.

The document also must spell out with certainty that there will be retirement at some point, protecting the University against faculty who later may have a change of heart, she said.

Confidentiality was not a necessity, so that provision was eliminated in the model language.


In researching other institutions’ policies, Washington found some other institutions had more onerous agreements than Pitt’s. She said: “What made ours stand out: Ours was nowhere to be found.”

It’s important to have something to look at, she said of the model agreement. “Different circumstances may require different provisions.”

Posting the template and offering FAQs will be beneficial both to faculty and administration, she said.

We want to make policies as transparent we can and make them easy to find, she said.

Collaboration is the way to go, she added. “That’s the way I think we should be working on everything: as collaborative and explanatory as possible.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

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