TAMPA — In what appears to be a first for the University of South Florida, administrators will roll out a buyout offer for professors on Monday.
The early retirement incentive program is designed to ease the strain on an increasingly hard-to-balance budget.
"We anticipate a very grey and ambiguous future ahead of us, especially beyond next year," USF senior vice provost Dwayne Smith said.
So USF will offer professors with at least 10 years of service a year's pay, plus accrued vacation or sick leave. The terms are first-come, first-served while the money lasts.
Those retirements could let the university replace some highly-paid faculty members with younger, less-expensive scholars.
USF officials haven't exactly said that's the plan, but neither do they deny it could happen.
In some cases, the salary of a longtime professor could cover the costs of a replacement, plus at least part of another position.
So, by using cash reserves for a one-time set of buyout payments, USF could reduce recurring costs for salaries far into the future.
Administrators say the program is voluntary, and it won't be big enough to cause a mass exodus.
"We're not trying to push people out," Smith said. "We are trying to make a benefit available that faculty have told us they would like to have. Some have said that they are ready to retire but are reticent to do it. We believe that this package may provide them with the appropriate incentive."
An estimated 1,000 faculty members with 10 or more years of experience would be eligible to apply. That's about half of the 2,014 full-time employees in the USF system's faculty pay plan.
At USF in Tampa, academic affairs officials expect to set aside an initial $2 million from cash reserves for the buyouts, though Smith acknowledged that's not a firm number.
While Smith said he knew of USF doing nothing like this before, it's an increasingly common practice.
Last year, Florida State University rolled out a similar program. Nationwide, more than 38 percent of institutions in an American Association of University Professors survey said they had offered one or more early retirement programs. About two-thirds offered nine months' pay or less.
After receiving details next week, faculty members will have 45 days to decide whether they want to apply.
Some likely won't need that long.
"I would not be surprised at all if there are more faculty who are interested in the program than USF puts money aside for," said Sherman Dorn, a professor of education and the president of the faculty union.
"I know a number of people who have told me they intend to apply," he said. "And the people who intend to apply are very happy about the opportunity."
And what about students? Will they see esteemed professors replaced by untenured beginners or poorly paid part-timers?
It's a fair question, says one expert, especially if the buyout is a knee-jerk reaction to an immediate financial crisis.
"The real danger here is that in the attempt to fix a short-term fiscal problem you end up damaging, on a real long-term basis, the university's academic programs, and you end up hurting the students," said John Curtis, the AAUP's director of research and public policy in Washington, D.C.
But Dorn said the issue of who replaces a retiring professor will be there no matter when people leave.
"That's a perennial concern," he said. "You don't make a decision on an early retirement program based on perennial concerns. Those pressures existed long before today, and those will exist after the budget crisis with the state goes away, if it goes."
Smith said USF will balance any savings it realizes with an "absolute commitment to students" and will "maintain a sufficient faculty to meet all of our curriculum needs."
Thus, he said, USF could use the savings to do some "strategic hiring." For example, if one department had a lot of people leave, then the university could reinvest in that department with new hires. Or it might bundle some of the savings and go for a well-known scholar.
The program is not designed to create double-dippers, administrators say, and professors are warned there's no presumption of re-employment with USF after they retire.
Still, it's possible.
After the St. Petersburg Times reported the practice of public employees retiring, then returning to collect a salary on top of their pensions, USF took steps to tighten restrictions on double-dipping.
Now USF president Judy Genshaft or her designee must approve any such rehires, according to the policy. And they can take place in only a few circumstances, including if a search failed to find a qualified replacement or if the employee's departure endangers an externally funded project.
"We still don't like the idea of a ban, because good talent may still be the best selection," USF spokesman Michael Hoad said in an e-mail to the Times. "But we do agree that it can't be an easy thing to do."