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Checking Out? You Need an Exit Strategy

Leadership and Management

Checking Out? You Need an Exit Strategy

 “I never think of the future—it comes soon enough.”

 —Albert Einstein

It has been said that “old deans never die; they just lose their faculties.” A clever saying, that—and it reminds those of us who have been stomping around in the academic vineyards for many years that we ought to have a well-considered plan for that time when all signs point to our need to hang it up. I have been in higher education for nearly 50 years as a faculty member and administrator and have been thinking that it is time to let the youth movement take over. After all, any college or university that expects to survive in these challenging times will need fresh ideas and dynamic new leadership to keep the academic ship afloat. With massive open online courses, demands for online academic options, high-tech innovations, accreditation interventions, government regulation at all levels, and ever-greater customer service expectations from students and their helicopter parents, a new generation of academic leaders must be cultivated and counted on to show the way.

So, if you think it may be time for you to go, what is your exit strategy? And if you are not sure it is time to go, how might you discern the clues and (sometimes subtle) signs that a graceful exit might be in order? Let me try to answer these two questions, starting with the second.

Looking for clues

How do you know it is time to hang it up? Here is a David Letterman-style top 10 list of clues to consider: 

10. After lunch, you feel a nap coming on.
 9. On a nice spring day, you wonder if the golf course is open yet.
 8. Your secretary or administrative assistant is out sick and you start to panic.
 7. You have no new email messages in the morning—and you are delighted.
 6. When the stock market news is good, you refigure your 403(b) retirement account totals.
 5. You forget an important committee meeting.
 4. When you ask what went on in that meeting, your colleagues did not notice you missed it.
 3. You are invited to more retirement events but fewer faculty parties.
 2. When you open the morning paper, you go first to the weather, then to the obituaries.
 1. Your boss does not seek your wise counsel on decisions that affect your work.

There may be other signs, of course—like when your administrative colleagues begin to admire the fine office space you currently occupy and you sense that they can imagine themselves sitting at your desk. But no need to get paranoid! Enjoy the compliment and remember that this fine office is only yours on loan from your institution.

Exit strategies

Once you have decided that the time has come to transition to a kinder, gentler lifestyle, you will want to plan an approach to this change that suits you and your institution. In preparation, you should no doubt do some reading on retirement options—such as Clay Schoenfeld’s classic Retirement 901: A Comprehensive Seminar for Senior Faculty and Staff (Magna Publications, 1993) and the many good advice articles in that AARP magazine and bulletin you have been perusing for years—and have some serious discussions with your family and your financial advisors. Making sure your health care provisions are adequate is just one more essential aspect of an exit plan, ever more complex as the Affordable Care Act unfolds in stages. Such decisions should receive plenty of deliberation and collaborative discussions as a prelude to leaving the scene. Schoenfeld advises senior faculty and administrators to ensure, before heading off into retirement, that they have the “Triple ‘A’ Essentials”: adequate income stream, affordable health care, and activities for self-fulfillment—good advice for all of us old-timers.

Some of us nearing the end of (one hopes) fulfilling careers as faculty or administrators, or both, might find one of the following exit plans just right, remembering that no one size fits all. 

1. Cold turkey

Depending on one’s plans, predilections, and preferences, it may be best to cut the tie that binds and walk away. As the saying goes, however, you should not retire from something but to something. Those with second-career options may want to make a clean break with their colleges or universities and plunge full time or part time into new work that is satisfying and rewarding, both personally and financially. Many who are drawn to the academic life—as a teacher or administrator—have strong service interests. A “cold turkey” retirement can provide time to engage more fully in one’s community needs or service opportunities in the wider world beyond academe. Some faculty or academic deans may have books unwritten that now become “shovel ready” projects; others may find that consulting, joining search firms, or turning some avocation into a business the ideal exit plan. But do retire to something.

2. Phased retirement

In recent years, the concept of “phased retirement” has become an increasingly popular option for those faculty and administrators who want to transition more slowly into the retired life of seniors. My college has adopted such a program, and I have just started the first of three years of half-time employment with a college I love and have served for 42 years as a faculty member, department chair, division head, dean, vice president for academic affairs, provost, interim president, and, now, senior vice president. I still am able to teach three courses and serve on 10 committees while working with assessment and accreditation initiatives as an administrator. And, if I want to, I can go home after lunch for a nap and a good walk around my neighborhood before my evening, heart-healthy glass (or two) of red wine. Lacking many hobbies or avocations, this is an ideal exit plan for me—and maybe for you.

3. Part-time teaching

A third option that may work well for some academic leaders is a variation on a formal phased retirement plan (which may not even be available at many institutions): part-time teaching. Many, if not most, deans and provosts started their academic careers in the classroom. The opportunity to return full circle could be an ideal way to ease into the next phase of life. This might rekindle academic interests that have been crowded out by the constant demands of the administrative work that has grown evermore burdensome and less rewarding over the years. It might be an opportunity to take on some interesting research too, investigations that might lead to more stimulating pedagogical techniques, technological skills, or content knowledge that can make teaching exciting and new. This option can leave plenty of time for travel, taking or auditing courses at one’s own institution or elsewhere, and reading those books that have been on the “bucket list” for years.

The long (or short) goodbye

As the old popular song put it, “Breaking up is hard to do.”Whether one has been at an institution for a long time or for a brief sojourn, leaving can be difficult. Many retirees from academe lament that they do not miss the work but they do indeed miss the people. And some even miss the work. In any event, life does go on. Yogi Berra supposedly said life changes so fast that “even the future isn’t what it used to be.” Kehlog Albran, in The Profit, observed: “I have seen the future and it is very much like the present—only longer.” Antonio, a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, declares that “what’s past is prologue.” All these speculations about what the future may be have us contemplating the culmination of our academic careers. Will your post-career future be radically different from the present? A continuation? A variation built on the experiences of the past?

I do hope, however, that Shakespeare’s King Lear was wrong when he said “Tis our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths while we, unburdened, crawl toward death.” I have no intent to crawl anywhere and hope that may be true for any academic leader who is looking at saying goodbye to old friends. Our experience and wisdom may yet serve those who rise to take our places as we mentor future academic leaders, sharing with them both the burdens of office and the many joys of teaching and administration. Our academic experiences can still be useful to the next generation of professors and administrators. As Soren Kierkegaard tells us, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Our understanding, gained from success and failure, can help those who take our places enjoy successful careers, “lived forwards,” in the academy.

By the year 2030 the entire baby boom generation will be senior citizens, well into the retirement periods of their choice. Those who have chosen the academic life will have made their mark on the lives of countless college students and colleagues along the way. May all of them, and we who precede them, find the best path into happy and fulfilling new life after the work life is over, “checking out” with well-planned exit strategies and miles to go before we sleep. And may you retiring deans keep all your “faculties.”

Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education and senior vice president at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Contact him at tom.mcdaniel@converse.edu.

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