University offers buyouts to 39 SEAS professors

The University is offering buyout packages to 39 full-time professors in the School of Engineering and Applied Science as part of a move to increase the school’s research presence, top-level University officials said in December.

All full-time faculty on active status were mailed letters on Oct. 22, and professors offered the package – those who joined the SEAS staff before 1994 – have until Jan. 29 to accept the “voluntary separation incentive program,” SEAS Dean David Dolling said in an e-mail.

The 39 faculty members offered the package comprise about half of the 83 full-time faculty in the school, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research’s Web site.

Already SEAS is gearing up to hire new faculty to replace those who may accept the buyout. In an interview in early December, Dolling said SEAS would be hiring 14 new “top-tier” professors in the coming year.

According to professors who received the buyout letter, GW’s increasing focus on research was named as a reason for the buyout program.

“This program is being instituted in anticipation of the ongoing academic evolution of The George Washington University as a major research university, in which the faculty will be expected to have significantly enhanced, externally funded research activity,” Dolling said.

University President Steven Knapp said in an e-mail that he supports the program but does not see a connection between the Science and Engineering Complex – a building expected to house research and academic spaces whose cost may reach and exceed $300 million, according to documents prepared by the Faculty Senate – and this buyout.

“As far as I am aware, this program is independent of the proposed new science and engineering facility, except insofar as improving our academic facilities across the board is part of our general process of continuing to build the university’s stature,” Knapp said.

Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Don Lehman said the buyout came from recommendations released in 2008 by the Commission on the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“What we’re basically doing is implementing a recommendation that was in that commission’s report,” Lehman said.

In an interview on Friday, Lehman said it has not been decided if the University will offer buyout packages to other faculty in the sciences, as administrators are waiting to see the response from this buyout.

While Lehman declined to discuss specifics, he did say that some faculty members who were hired closer to 1994 have already turned the package down because “it does not make economic sense for them.”

Lehman referred to the SEAS commission report when asked about the possibility for other faculty to receive buyouts, reiterating that the commission – which was staffed by professors and administrators – recommended this program.

Improving the University’s research status has been one of Knapp’s focuses since he came from Johns Hopkins University – one of the country’s premier research institutions – in 2007. The Innovation Task force was launched in part to provide additional funds to research. Knapp appointed Dr. Leo Chalupa to the newly created position of vice president for research in 2009. The Science and Engineering Complex – a project which was in the works before Knapp’s tenure – is expected to improve research, as it will provide a physical space the University hopes will be used for top-tier studies.

The University of Florida and Northern Arizona University offered buyout options to members of their faculty this fall but, according to the newspapers at both universities, the buyouts were spurred by budget deficits, not administrative agendas.

Dr. Murray Loew, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, was offered the buyout but has yet to decide if he will take the package.

Loew – who came to GW in 1978 – said he believes the letter made it clear that GW was looking to make room for professors who focus on research.

“The letter made clear, albeit, in one sentence, in the first or second paragraph that the rationale is ‘in view of the University’s increasing emphasis on research,'” Loew said. “The message is pretty clear that people who are not research-active are probably the main people being encouraged [to take the buyout].”

Simon Berkovich, another faculty member who was offered the buyout and has been at GW for 30 years, said he feels GW is pressuring faculty members to leave.

“There will be negative consequences if the buyout is not accepted; the pressure is already exercised,” he said.

Dolling and Lehman said there would be no consequences for faculty who do not take the package, as it is voluntary.

The amount offered in each package varies by time served at GW. If a faculty member came to the University from Aug. 1960 to July 1979, he or she will receive double his or her 2009 base academic-year salary. From Aug. 1979 to July 1986, 1 1/5 the 2009 base academic-year salary; from Aug. 1986 to July 1990, the 2009 base academic-year salary; and from Aug. 1990 to July 1994, half the 2009 base academic-year salary.

The American Association of University Professors released a report for the 2008-2009 academic year that said GW pays full-time professors an average of $134,700 a year.

If faculty members choose to accept the proposed buyout plan, they will be able to keep the retirement benefits they have incurred while working at the school, Lehman said.

“The University doesn’t own their retirement benefits,” Lehman said. “If faculty members choose to accept the proposed buyout plan, it, of course, has no impact on their accumulated [403(b)] retirement benefits gained through their employment at GW.”

At GW, employees contribute to their own retirement plans, but after they have worked at GW for two years of full-time service, they are eligible to enroll in a base retirement plan where the University contributes up to four percent of their base salary to the plan. Additionally, for each percent of salary that employees contribute, GW will contribute an additional amount equal to 1.5 times the employee’s contribution, up to a total University contribution of 10 percent.

Faculty who accept the buyouts will be able to choose when they would leave, with the latest departure being spring 2011.

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