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Career Advice

Rally or retire?

How to manage faculty burnout

BY RAYMOND F. CURRIE | APR 10 2007

Betina has recently assumed the position of chair in her department of 20 faculty members. In one of her first actions, she has decided to meet with each faculty member, starting with a couple with whom she is most comfortable, just to get her bearings. But she already knows that one of her most difficult interviews will be with a full professor, Cameron, who seems to be coasting and really should retire. She would like to delay this meeting but she knows she has to face it sooner rather than later.

Cameron is, however, still at least three years from retirement. He was hired at a time when research was not a strong requirement in the faculty and certainly not in the department. His last publication was at least five years ago. The dean has made it clear he wants to strengthen the research activities dramatically and expects the chairs of departments to take the major responsibility. Although Cameron was chair a number of years ago, he was not particularly effective, but has always been perceived to be fair and a “nice guy.” He was much more a manager of the status quo than an innovator. His teaching, which used to be better than average, is now barely adequate. The new hires and mid-career members of the department are dynamic and the research productivity of the department is increasing steadily so that the department is now viewed by the Dean to have moved from “weak” to “moderate” strength. Betina is trying to think through a plan before meeting with Cameron.

The behaviour of this one faculty member clearly has had an effect on the rest of the department. There is a climate in every department, and the chair has a major responsibility to create or sustain an environment of productive scholarship and collegial respect. A tempting question to ask: What are the consequences of doing nothing? What would be the costs of avoiding confrontation and running out the clock on Cameron’s career?

While this might seem like the easiest way to manage the situation, the climate of scholarship in the department will suffer. Other faculty members, more junior, have noted the real discrepancy in productivity and rewards. Betina has obviously already realized the situation is having a negative impact on the department, including her credibility in managing it. What’s more, with non-mandatory retirement now occurring in most jurisdictions, Betina cannot be sure that Cameron will actually retire in three years. Finally, the dean has expectations for the faculty and the department and Cameron does not appear to be contributing in a positive way. If Betina fails to deal with this situation, will the dean withhold resources or simply be less generous?

Support, don’t coddle

If it is agreed something should be done, what options does Betina have? Merit pay could be invoked as either a sanction or incentive, but not without risks. Rather than using merit pay announcements as a proxy, it would be far more effective for Betina to address her concerns about performance directly to Cameron. Faculty members generally can accept negative decisions about merit pay and even promotion as long as they feel the process was fair.

Assuming again that no academic wants to be perceived to be doing a bad job, it is essential for Betina to address both Cameron’s teaching and research as individual issues. It could be helpful for Cameron to know that Betina is starting with the presumption that he wants to be successful, that she believes he can be successful. Perhaps some remedial work can be done in one or the other area, or in both areas. It is a shame the situation has deteriorated to this point, but it can no longer be avoided.

Most campuses have supports for improving teaching. On the research side, it may be useful to explore the possibility of opportunities for Cameron to contribute effectively as part of a research team rather than try to embark on new research on his own. Assuming that the teaching can be improved, is there a useful project that Cameron could undertake for the benefit of the department or the faculty?

If Cameron resists, or accepts but fails to deliver on Betina’s call for improved performance, the meeting need not end in a standoff. Betina could very constructively move their dialogue to the concept of burnout and perhaps help Cameron to reflect upon its application to his situation. Peter Vail describes burnout as having three characteristics: 1) holding onto an abstract commitment to a task, 2) loss of heart to continue to fulfill it at an excellent level, and 3) the decision (or lack thereof) to remain in the situation, subject to the culture and all the expectations of it. This is a powerful description and each of the three components deserves reflection.

Show them a door, let them walk through it

Should Cameron resist further, he needs to reflect upon the unacceptability of continuing as things are, and as importantly, that other options exist, including early retirement. Betina could, for example, explore whether the hesitation to retire stems from financial concerns. My experience is that few academics have a clear grasp of the financial resources they will have in retirement. Those currently close to retirement who have had a relatively long academic career tend to underestimate significantly their retirement benefits. For example, at a time of severe budget constraints, I supported my budget officer when she wished to complete the requirements to be a financial adviser. I then permitted her to spend a quarter of her time advising academics on these matters. She did not suggest investments in one or another financial tool (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc), nor did she suggest companies in which they should invest, but rather she carefully reviewed with them their financial situation, and put all their options in front of them. Her services were of course available to all faculty members and support staff, and became widely known and talked about in the faculty. I judged it was an excellent benefit to offer to staff who had dedicated their lives to the institution. Of significance in this context, it clearly helped several academics who were performing marginally to leave academic life without any stain on their career.

An exclusive emphasis on performance related carrots and sticks might only compound the problem. A more positive and supportive discussion of available exit options might make the faculty member comfortable enough to contemplate moving on without shame or regret. I received many expressions of thanks from faculty members for the financial service we provided. In fact, a number of faculty members from faculties that did not offer this service wanted to use her services. In some universities, such advice is offered after individuals have decided to retire, but we offered service prior to such a decision, and it gave staff a great deal of support in arriving at their final choice.

Raymond F. Currie is a Dean Emeritus and retired professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba. As an Associate at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development (CHERD), he leads national and local workshops on academic leadership for chairs of departments. He also chairs the Research Data Centre National Coordinating Committee, a network of 20 Centres at universities across the country.

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