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Professional Development Grants for Retirees

By Adam Overland

Eastcliff UMRA 165
UMRA members at Eastcliff.

April 13, 2010

Ask a faculty member at the U why they do what they do, and you won't often hear "I do it for the money." I sat down with a couple of retired U professors the other day, and that certainly wasn't the response I heard from them. The answer seems to be a much less tangible mix of unending curiosity, altruism (with a pinch of everyday ego), and a sense of responsibility for the betterment of the human condition. Together, these motives seem to be the composite force behind a research University. And so a program (apparently unique in the nation among higher education institutions) that awards grants to retirees to continue their work (or begin new avenues) would seem to be naturally aligned.

John Howe and Martin Dworkin, professors emeritus of history and microbiology, respectively, and leaders of the University of Minnesota Retirees Association (UMRA), thought it made perfect sense to reward those who in retirement wanted to continue their intellectual pursuits. And so they looked to other universities as examples, from UCLA, to UC Berkeley, to the University of Arizona, and others. Finding nothing, they were emboldened to develop a model and prepare to do battle to put it into play.

"We developed a plan, we were able to get on Bob Bruininks's calendar, and we were pleased…I guess we were surprised—Marty was amazed (laughing)—at the absolutely upscale, upbeat, positive reception that we got," says Howe. "The folks essentially said, 'why hasn't someone thought of this before?'"

After all, it makes sense--very intelligent people with time on their hands want to keep researching on behalf of the U. "It offers an opportunity for people who contributed many years to the University to keep contributing—that's good for the University as well as the individuals. So we didn't have to persuade anybody, all the way up to Bob," says Howe. And so began the Professional Development Grants for Retirees program.

Support comes from more than money
They were given three years of "soft money" (temporary money, not yet in a permanent budget line) and have now completed the first two award cycles. Funding came from a wide array of sources, including the offices of the senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, senior vice president for health sciences, senior vice president for system academic administration, vice president for research, vice provost and dean of graduate education, and UMRA.

Admittedly, it's a small program, with modest grants of up to several thousand dollars, but Howe and Dworkin say it's having the desired effect.

"We've gotten very high quality applications and have granted research and scholarship projects that we would be proud of under any circumstance," says Dworkin. The grants are awarded through a selective committee process and signed off on by vice president for research Tim Mulcahy. Dworkin has sat on National Institute of Health grant review programs, and says that the same kind of rigorous assessment takes place before approving retiree grants.

"This is not intended to be occupational therapy for bored retirees," says Dworkin.
It is intended to be rigorous and high quality. We're not giving money away to projects that don't cut the mustard."

Howe says that the heart of the program is to provide support for people who want to stay intellectually alive.

Not exactly Florida
"When you come to retirement, a lot of folks say, 'that's enough, I've had a good career. I'm going to go to Florida and go fishing. That's perfectly legitimate. This program says if you're not finished yet and need encouragement, then some modest financial support is a kind of encouragement to try something," says Howe.

And certainly, with 10 grants awarded in 2008-09 and 14 in 2009-10, many are trying.

Research with global implications
Forty years ago, professor Eville Gorham, who headed the U's botany department, authored an essay called "Our Environmental Future," in which he wrote:

"There is increasing evidence that combustion of fossil fuels is injecting carbon dioxide faster than it can be equilibrated with the vast oceanic reservoir of bicarbonate, and that this carbon dioxide is retarding the re-radiation of incoming heat from the earth’s surface to outer space.

Because of such a ‘greenhouse effect’ we would expect a warming of the climate, to a degree that might eventually be sufficient to melt the ice caps and flood many of the world’s major conurbations
."

Now, Gorham is working on another project with global implications: cataloging all human knowledge.

Some of the grant recipients for 2009-10 include Eville Gorham (see sidebar), regents professor emeritus, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, who is working on seeing that the "Library of Alexandria’s ancient charge of organizing and cataloging all human knowledge" is carried out. He's helping retired faculty contribute to preserving the world’s knowledge by providing a framework for them to catalog, annotate, index, and submit their collected works.

Roger McCannon, director emeritus of the Center for Small Towns at UMM, is coordinating a countywide development project to show that investments in the University of Minnesota can successfully leverage other resources and have long-term outreach benefits for small towns. He'll use the funds for travel to the annual national conference of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of University Partnerships, where he'll present research.

New directions

While projects might be part of an applicant’s ongoing professional activities, Howe and Dworkin say proposals for new interests or research methodologies within an applicant’s area of expertise are also encouraged.

For example, says Dworkin, "Many of us throughout our careers have had ideas—things we wanted to work on—but they were a little off the beaten track—they were risky, they were not the kinds of things, especially in the sciences, that you were likely to get support for, because grant support in the sciences is largely based on what people think is going to work—what they're going to get a payoff on. But many of us have been thinking, 'I'd love to get a whack at this—we want to encourage faculty—this is your chance to try it.'"

Dworkin says that being awarded a grant is a sort of validation "that what you're doing is considered important by somebody—by a committee of your peers. We spend all of our careers, and all of our lives struggling to get validation from our profession or from our peers at the University, so this is a dimension of that."

For now, the program has one more year of temporary money. Howe and Dworkin are also looking outside the U for program funding. "It's up in the air, as many things fiscal are these days," says Howe. "But we're hopeful."

 


All faculty, professional and administrative, and civil service retirees from the Twin Cities and Coordinate Campuses of the University, who will be fully retired by July 1, 2010, are eligible to apply.

For more information, see Professional Development Grants for Retirees.