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AAMC 2014: Going Out With a Bang: Keeping Faculty Productive at the End of Their Careers


Announcer: Broadcasting from the Algorithms for Innovation booth at the AAMC in Chicago. The Healthcare Insider is on The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

Interviewer: How do you manage the careers of tenured faculty as their career comes to a close? Dr. Harriet Hoff is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs here at the University of Utah and she led a two-year effort to revise a promotion and tenure criteria at the University of Utah. It's a challenge a lot of institutions face. As somebody approaches their end of their tenured career, a lot of things can happen. Let's talk about that.

Hopf: Towards the end of the career, one of the major concerns is reduced productivity and how do you help someone transition to the end of their career. I actually think this is tied into how you manage their career throughout. We want to hire the person, not the project. We want to hire the best person who's got great initiative and flexibility and ability to take on new projects. I think at their mid-career, you want to make sure that faculty evolve and that they find new interest and fresh things to work on so that they continue to progress and don't get stale.

That way, when they get to the end of their career, hopefully, they have been productive all along; they haven't been sliding into the end of their career, petering out, losing interest. If they've evolved over time, taken on new projects, possibly in areas that you didn't expect but that might benefit the department, then the end of their career may be more useful.

The other thing is, I think, that this should be an explicit part of planning of a career. We don't talk very much with faculty members or as departments about how do we transition someone to the end of their career gracefully. Particularly as people live longer, you might be in your 70s and just sort of think, "Well, I'm tenured and I can just stay here forever." And some people may be able to do that. Other people may be less and less productive.

It can be complicated because if someone is still here when they're 70, they may have had a hugely productive career and we want to acknowledge that and honor that. But if they're not productive currently, they may be taking up a tenured position that we can't put fresh blood into a new faculty member who may be the next person in the future who brings new, exciting discoveries to our department.

So hiring the right person, keeping them engaged, managing their career so it evolves over time and then making sure that you have a plan for them or how do you want to end your career? How do you want to transition to an emeritus faculty member who can still contribute, but isn't expected to fund their salary or fund the things that are going on in the department?

Interviewer: So it sounds like a little of foresight, but the human life is a long time. So what if you're in a situation where you have some of those end-of-career faculty members right now and some of the managing that you said would be helpful hasn't been done?

Hopf: I think there's a real reliance on Chairs to be proactive and also to have those difficult conversations. I think sometimes, people can be afraid to have that conversation. They admire the person, they've been very productive, now they're not. The person probably doesn't want to have the conversation because they aren't comfortable with not being as productive. So I think having a Chair who feels strong enough to have a conversation, "Hey, we need to figure out what you're going to do because you're not contributing." I think . . .

Interviewer: Would it be that honest and blunt? "We need to figure out what to do because you're not contributing?"

Hopf: I think you probably wouldn't put it exactly that way, but you'd want to do it. And I think faculty affairs offices can be very helpful in practicing those conversations, helping department chairs identify how to approach the faculty member. And I also think managing their career throughout is the ideal situation. But, sometimes, you have to have tough conversations. And in fact, if someone's not contributing any longer, there are mechanisms for ending their tenure.

But it takes some resolve to go ahead and do that. And I think you have to expect that if you have someone who's becoming less of a contributor to the department, it may take some time to transition them. You may have to invest in encouraging them to retire. It's a difficult situation and I think it's a situation ideally that you'd want to prevent rather than to figure out how to manage later on. So again, engaged faculty members who find new work that's interesting to them so they stay at the high level that you hired them because they could achieve.

By: Scot Singpiel

Scot Singpiel is senior producer for