Staff Editorial: Faculty buyouts seem backed by good intentions

The term “buyout” tends to make people nervous.

As of late, the word has been associated with the economic downturn of 2008, and for many, it brings to mind companies looking to downsize and cut costs.

A spokeswoman for GW even called it “The Hatchet’s terminology” last week in an effort to distance the University from the word’s negative connotation.

When The Hatchet reported that the business school was offering buyouts to dozens of professors, we immediately though back to former dean Doug Guthrie, whose three-year tenure was plagued by faculty turmoil. When he first came to GW, Guthrie noted that the business school suffered from “poor teaching and deficient scholarship,” and suggested replacing tenured professors with younger, research-focused faculty.

There’s no reason for students in the business school – or any other school – to panic over this news. The idea of buyouts may seem scary, but ultimately, it looks like the University does have students’ best interests in mind.

Partially, that’s because these changes are driven by the strategic plan, GW’s road map for the next 10 years. It focuses heavily on boosting GW’s academic profile, a positive move that will benefit anyone with a GW degree. That shift calls for a hiring blitz of 50 to 100 professors, and buyouts are a necessary – albeit somewhat uncomfortable – step toward jump-starting the plan’s implementation.

The other part of the strategic plan we’re seeing at play here is an effort to make GW a research powerhouse, which University President Steven Knapp has prioritized since he arrived in 2007. By reducing the number of positions held by more experienced faculty, who usually have larger salaries, GW is freeing up money to hire new professors who can boost its research reputation.

Charles Garris, a professor and the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, told The Hatchet that deals like the business school’s are a way to maintain a mixture of ages. It might seem harsh, like GW is trying to oust older professors, but the University is actually trying to maintain a group of faculty with diverse teaching experience.

Of course, there are pros and cons to both younger and older professors. Older professors tend to be more worldly, have tried and true systems of teaching and know how best to connect with students, but may avoid using the latest technology to improve their classes. Younger professors may be more innovative and offer students real-world connections and networking opportunities, but sometimes lack solid teaching strategies and career experience.

But with these buyouts, the University has an opportunity to balance these strengths and better accommodate students’ academic needs.

It wouldn’t be beneficial to have a faculty corps in the business school – or any school, for that matter – completely dominated by either young or older professors. The best option is a variety of ages, which gives students the opportunity to choose which professors are right for them. If you’re a student who wants to connect with professors closer to your own age, you can have that option. If you find it easier to respect a professor who’s been around for longer, you can do that, too.

It might seem like the system puts older professors at a disadvantage, but faculty have the option to turn down the deals that the University offers, and many do: The Hatchet reported that when faculty were offered buyouts in the engineering school and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2009 and 2010, only about 15 percent accepted them.

We have to be careful not to blow the buyouts out of proportion or start worrying that GW is trying to convince every professor over the age of 50 to retire. That’s simply not the reality.

The buyouts could be positive for current faculty as well, encouraging older professors to change outdated practices or try new technology. And those professors in the middle – not fresh out of graduate school, nor headed for retirement – will be able to take advantage of the benefits afforded by a diverse faculty.

It’s unlikely GW will ever own up to the fact that it’s offering “buyouts.” That’s why the spokeswoman stayed away from the term and refused to disclose how many of the deals have been offered. The soonest GW will celebrate the outcome of this process is when it can brag about the school’s swath of professors who are up-and-comers in their fields.

We’re in the awkward phase right now – caught before that time comes, in the process of having to usher out older professors. But students should appreciate that their University has their best interests in mind, and recognize that down the line, academics and research at this institution will be greatly improved.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, culture editor Emily Holland, sports editor Sean Hurd, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design editor Sophie McTear.

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