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50 or more USF professors apply for early retirement buyouts

TAMPA — Some of the University of South Florida's best-known scholars, including experts on Tampa's poorest neighborhoods, religious ethics and coastal marine ecosystems, are among the 50 or more who have applied for USF's first-ever early retirement buyout.

That number could grow, since the application deadline is the close of business today.

But even 50 is twice the number of applications USF expected on its Tampa campus alone.

"We've probably already exceeded the money that we set aside, so we will be looking to see if we can find other sources of money," USF senior vice provost Dwayne Smith said Tuesday. "We'd like to accommodate as many people as we can."

Administrators had earmarked about $2 million for buyouts in Tampa and roughly $3.5 million for the whole USF system.

The university has offered to pay a year's salary, plus accrued sick time and vacation, to faculty members who agree to retire early. Salaries for full professors at USF average nearly $102,000 a year. Associate professors' salaries average $74,000 annually.

But the money is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Most who applied did so by e-mail, sending in applications within minutes, even seconds, of the start of the application period.

"It was like trying to get an A-Listing on Southwest Airlines," said professor of anthropology Susan Greenbaum, who applied electronically. Greenbaum, who came to USF in 1981, directs its office of community engagement and has done wide-ranging research, including extensive work on community development in Tampa's urban areas.

But not budgeting enough money for those who apply turned the process into something undignified, a "weird lottery" over "who could push the button fastest," Greenbaum said.

Other prominent faculty members who applied for the buyout include biologist John Ogden, the longtime director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, and professor of religious studies Darrell Fasching, a past associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The buyout application period began at 8 a.m. Monday.

"I tried to get in one stroke past 8 o'clock," said Fasching, an expert on religion's relationship to violence and nonviolence and the author of works on genocide, Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

USF's online form told him his application went in two seconds after 8.

In addition to those who applied online, 17 people lined up at the human resources office on USF's Tampa campus. Four, some with lawn chairs and snacks, told Smith they had lined up the previous night.

Those applications were time-stamped by 8:01 a.m., Smith said. But he saw some people in line with laptops who might have applied electronically even as they waited to turn in a paper application. It's not clear yet how many people applied both ways.

The list of applicants, which could change because professors have a week to reconsider, so far also includes three people each from the departments of childhood education and literacy studies, mass communications and theater and dance.

Faculty members who still want to apply have nothing to lose by doing so, Smith said. If the university cannot give them buyouts, their applications are not binding, he said.

USF announced the early retirement program in January, making it available to employees in the faculty pay plan with at least 10 years' service. The pay plan covers about 2,000 full-time employees. Of those, 659 are eligible to apply for a buyout, 550 of them on the Tampa campus.

Soon the campus buzzed with speculation that professors would line up to apply like baby boomers trying to score Bruce Springsteen tickets. That's when USF decided that e-mail applications would be okay, too.

The interest was not surprising, considering how sweet the offer is. In a national survey, two-thirds of universities that had similar programs offered nine months' pay or less.

The eligibility requirements also were more loose than at Florida State University last year.

"Wow," said Phaedra Harris, FSU's associate director of human resources, when she learned just how many people could apply for buyouts at USF.

At FSU, applicants had to be 70 or older to apply for early retirement, among other things. So out of about 6,000 faculty and staff members, only 27 employees met the application criteria. Just five retired through the program.

"We were a little more conservative," Harris said. "For 10 years of service, (USF's offer) is a great deal."

50 or more USF professors apply for early retirement buyouts 03/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 12:42am]

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