Incentivized, early retirement package leads to dozens of retirements over 2 years

Veronica Novotny

Due to an incentivized early retirement package, over a dozen faculty and staff will be retiring from Franciscan University of Steubenville in the next two years.

“The program was made available to full-time, regular faculty, staff and administrators who, as of September 22, 2021, had eight years of service and had attained the university’s retirement age minimum of 55,” Mary Lynn Lewis, a human resources administrative specialist, said.

Lewis said that although 117 employees qualified for the program, only “34 faculty and staff members are retiring under this program at various dates between December 31, 2021 through May 31, 2024.”

Daniel Kempton, vice president of academic affairs, said, “It’s not a common but (still) not unusual thing for universities to do … (because) universities are different than most employers in that we have a system called ‘tenure.’”

Kempton said that tenure is important for professors and scholars because “we as faculty need the freedom to really say and make the arguments we believe in. Now, at Franciscan University, that doesn’t mean you can violate or teach against Catholic teaching. You cannot, and that’s one of our requirements for tenure.”

But with the tenure system, professors are here to stay, even when the winds change in the academic field.

“Most of our faculty are tenured; most of our faculty are full professors. That’s more expensive,” Kempton said. “It’s also good to have some mix, some people starting their career, some people ending their career.”

Kempton said the majors that students select change over the years with job trends and student interest. With the tenure system, academics cannot change with the times.

Kempton said, “You can essentially plan forward. … We owe it to our students to not only educate and form them well, but their parents care about them getting jobs. We’re trying to ensure that each of our majors is up to where employers demand their skill levels be to get those positions.”

The university is falling behind on the technology required to keep graduating students up to date with career standards, Kempton said.

“The programs we select to participate in that (Christ the Teacher building) sort of signal what we think about the future,” Kempton said. “The business department, the nursing department and creating the engineering program — which we currently have no space dedicated for — are three of the programs which we expect to continue to grow and continue to develop.

“They also tend to be programs where the teaching of them tends to be technology dependent. Nursing has gotten increasingly technological … and you can now replace an increasing number of hours of clinical hours with simulation hours,” he said. “Our sim people are often on carts in the hallway because we don’t have permanent space for them.”

To date, several professors have already announced their retirements with the program.

James Gaston, who holds a doctorate in 19th and 20th century European intellectual history; Michael Fitzgerald, who holds a doctorate in history; and Robert Doyle, who holds a doctorate in American culture studies and has already said he would continue to teach one course per semester, are just a few of the faculty retirees.

Three of seven full-time English professors are retiring from the department in the next year: David Craig, who holds a doctorate in English creative writing; John Holmes, who holds a doctorate in British romanticism; and Mary Ann Sunyoger, who holds a doctorate in English education and writing literacy and has been chair of the department since 2019.

Craig said, “Well, it was a happy coincidence for me. Jesus has been telling me for little while that 70 would be a good time to retire. As it happened, that birthday came up in December, so the package was gravy.

“I think I’m ready. I’ve been here for 34 years, and though I’ve loved the students … and my colleagues, the timing was right for me. I don’t feel disrespected or anything. I think it’s time for a younger voice. I think (I) bring a lot to the table, and the next person probably won’t have the same experience. But different can be good, no?”

After teaching most creative writing classes, both fiction and poetry, during his 34 years at the university, Craig said he understands how difficult faculty decision-making can be but is still concerned for the future of creative writing at the university.

“One thing that has disturbed me some was that they are not hiring a replacement for me in the coming year,” he said. “That means that whoever teaches the creative writing classes won’t have been specifically trained for the job.

“Now I want to give Dr. Kempton his due. He knows the bigger picture: how much money they have, how they might want or need to reconfigure the different departments, and how the timing should go on that. So I don’t want to leave the impression that he’s a bad guy. His job is not easy. I just hope the students are being served.”

Kempton said that departments with multiple retirements may not receive new hires to replace everyone who leaves and that the university will take this opportunity to funnel more resources and faculty positions into the rising professional fields of business, nursing and engineering.

“Departments (that) have lost enrollments may lose a position, which is painful, but that means we can move that position to a department that’s actually grown in their enrollment,” Kempton said. “We’re trying to be more efficient in our tuition dollars.”

Retiring faculty are joined by staff members Tom Sofio, public relations manager; Pamela Salatino, coordinator of chapel ministries administration; and many more.

Because the faculty and staff are announcing their own retirements, Kempton would not provide a comprehensive list of the retiring faculty.

Human Resources did not respond to inquiries about the specifics of the package and the number of retirements.

Kempton said the typical timeline for hiring new faculty goes as follows: advertise for at least three months over the summer, bring candidates on campus in October and November for in-depth interviews, send offer letters before Thanksgiving, and have hired new professors by Christmas, or February at the latest.

The whole process takes at least a year from the time a tenured faculty member announces his or her retirement.

This is in addition to the preexisting step-down system, in which the professor may teach for a year or two at half-pay, Kempton said.

Kempton himself is set to retire in May 2023 and said he may teach online for a few semesters after retirement.

“Even though we incentivized these early retirements, it doesn’t mean we don’t feel a loss,” Kempton said, getting emotional. “There are some great friends of mine, colleagues, who contributed a lot to the mission. I’m pleased to say that many of them are going to continue to teach after retirement, but on a less regular basis.”

Kempton said there is a new status called “emeritus” for “valued colleagues” who retire but continue to teach. This position offers a slightly increased salary compared to an adjunct.

Kempton was hopeful that many of the longstanding faculty of the university would take a step-down approach and teach a course or two per semester after retiring.

“Hopefully, many of those faces will not disappear entirely,” Kempton said.