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The hottest ticket at USF? For professors, maybe early retirement

TAMPA — Here's what the University of South Florida doesn't want to see next month:

People camping out overnight. Lawn chairs and sleeping bags. Disputes about who got there first. A Darwinian struggle to be first in line.

And what prompts this concern? Basketball fans rabid for the Bulls? Hip-hop fans jonesing over a concert at the USF Sun Dome?

No, professors lining up for buyouts.

The application period for USF's first-ever early retirement program starts at 8 a.m. March 15. The buyouts are first-come, first-served. The offer is sweeter than those on many other campuses. But the pot of money is limited, and the buzz is intense.

One scenario often mentioned: scholars and scientists camping outside of USF's human resources office like soccer moms hoping to get tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert.

"I've heard those rumors," said Sherman Dorn, a professor of education and the president of USF's faculty union. "There has been considerable interest."

So on Tuesday, the university changed the rules. Faculty members can still deliver an application in person and get it time-stamped by hand. They can even line up early if they wish. But they also can get their application time-stamped by e-mail.

The idea is to prevent the rumored "mad scramble," said Dwayne Smith, USF's senior vice provost.

USF announced the early retirement package last month. Faculty members with at least 10 years' service can get a year's pay, plus accrued sick time or vacation, by retiring early.

By comparison, two-thirds of universities that reported offering similar programs in a national survey said their buyouts consisted of nine months' pay or less.

There are about 2,000 full-time employees in the USF system's faculty pay plan. Of those, 659 are eligible to apply for the early retirement program, and 550 of them are on the Tampa campus.

So far, the university has gotten about 40 direct inquiries about the program. Smith has heard the rumors, but he has also talked to some professors who told him the numbers wouldn't work for them.

So for now no one can predict how many professors might apply.

"I have absolutely no idea," USF provost Ralph Wilcox said.

Nor can administrators say where the cutoff will be.

There isn't a lot of money set aside for this program. The initial amount earmarked on the Tampa campus is about $2 million, though Smith said USF is prepared to try to dig deeper if there's a lot of interest.

Throughout the whole university system, the total set aside for the buyouts is roughly $3.5 million. (Not all parts of the USF system are participating. USF Polytechnic in Lakeland and the College of Medicine have opted out, Smith said.)

How many buyouts the university can afford will depend a lot on who applies.

Salaries for full professors at USF average nearly $102,000 a year, and associate professors salaries' average $74,000 annually, according to a survey by the American Association of University Professors.

But pay varies from department to department. Business professors, for example, can make more, often a lot more, than instructors in the humanities.

Administrators say they are not trying to force anyone out, but the buyouts could save USF money at a time when operating funds are tight.

Still, Wilcox said, there's a risk of losing longtime faculty members whose contributions would be "very, very difficult to replace."

The university has thought about what would happen if too many people in the same department try to take the buyout. As a result, it is telling professors that USF retains the right to defer a retirement if it would hurt "some aspect of the university's mission."

Administrators also are warning professors that they cannot count on retiring and getting hired back. It's possible, but USF tightened eligibility requirements after the St. Petersburg Times reported on double-dipping among public employees.

"That may cool some people's interest," Smith said.

More immediately, administrators have thought about what happens if someone uses a faster, better home computer to get a nanosecond's edge on the first day of the application process.

That's possible, Smith acknowledged. To the degree possible, administrators plan to try to fund all those faculty members whose applications come in very close together.

Still, he said applying by e-mail seems preferable to standing around waiting for the doors to open.

"It's been likened to an after Thanksgiving Day sale," Smith said, "but we're encouraging on-line shopping."

The hottest ticket at USF? For professors, maybe early retirement 02/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 11:14pm]

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