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Journal of Change Management

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Other Organizations Are Doing It, Why

Shouldn't We? A Look at Downsizing
and Organizational Identity through an
Institutional Theory Lens

Kristen Madison Day , Achilles A. Armenakis , Hubert S. Feild

& Dwight R. Norris

University of Tennessee , Knoxville , TN , USA

Auburn University , AL , USA

Published online: 23 Mar 2012.

To cite this article: Kristen Madison Day , Achilles A. Armenakis , Hubert S. Feild & Dwight R.
Norris (2012) Other Organizations Are Doing It, Why Shouldn't We? A Look at Downsizing and
Organizational Identity through an Institutional Theory Lens, Journal of Change Management, 12:2,
165-188, DOI: 10.1080/14697017.2012.662992
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Journal of Change Management

Vol. 12, No. 2, 165 188, June 2012

Other Organizations Are Doing It, Why

Shouldnt We? A Look at Downsizing
and Organizational Identity through an
Institutional Theory Lens

University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA, Auburn University, AL, USA

ABSTRACT Downsizing is a current hot-button issue confronting many organizations and

enticing researchers alike. This case study explored the complex nature of these change
initiatives, through both macro-environmental antecedents and non-financial organizational
consequences. The adoption of downsizing was conceptualized through an institutional theory
lens, and an organizational identity perspective to downsizing outcomes was applied, paying
particular attention to the alignment of post-downsizing activities with the organizations mission.
The case study examined the events leading up to the implementation of a downsizing initiative at
a major university and then the post-implementation restructuring aftermath. It is demonstrated
how organizational change can result in less-than-expected outcomes if the planning and
implementation phases receive inadequate attention. Suffering from severe fiscal stress, decision
makers mimicked a popular downsizing initiative without a thorough diagnosis, ultimately
creating an environment for ineffectiveness. Specifically, a severe miscalculation in the number of
faculty retirees resulted in academic chaos: a decrease in the classes offered; loss of
administrative and student services; and loss of faculty achievements along with university name
recognition. Most notably, a majority of retiree research endeavours were eliminated; a shocking
outcome that conflicts with the mission of a major research university.
KEY WORDS : downsizing, task restructuring, institutional theory, organizational identity,
organizational change effectiveness

Correspondence Address: Kristen Madison Day, University of Tennessee, 406 Stokely Management Center, 916
Volunteer Boulevard, Knoxville, TN 37996-0530, USA. Email:
1469-7017 Print/1479-1811 Online/12/02016524 # 2012 Taylor & Francis


K.M. Day et al.

It is axiomatic that change is hard, and this is especially true of change involving
reductions in jobs and people.
(Datta et al., 2010, p. 341)

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Because of environmental dynamics in the global economy (e.g. economic downturns, fierce competition and the emergence of new technology), employee downsizing is a popular trend in the workplace (Cascio, 1993; Marshak, 2002; Clair and
Dufresne, 2004; Gandolfi, 2009; Datta et al., 2010). For example, 85% of the
Fortune 500 companies downsized during the 1990s (Farrell and Mavondo,
2004). Downsizing continues to be a prevalent practice, as witnessed by 4
million US workers who were laid off in 2009 alone (Cascio, 2010). Simultaneously, more change is occurring with the retirement of the baby-boomer generation and the loss of knowledge workers in the labour pool (Dohm, 2000; Hilton,
2008). Organizations are becoming leaner, but at what cost?
The focus of most downsizing research is on: (1) organizational antecedents
such as firm performance, top management team attributes, governance characteristics, organizational structure, strategy or work practices (Iqbal and Shetty, 1994;
Budros, 1997, 2000, 2002; Iverson and Pullman, 2000; Osterman, 2000; Ahmadjian and Robinson, 2001; Conyon et al., 2002); (2) organizational-level financial
outcomes, like market share or accounting returns (Gandolfi, 2009; Datta, et al.,
2010); or (3) employee-level consequences including job satisfaction, commitment, motivation and work performance (Brockner et al., 1993; Amabile and
Conti, 1995; Wagar, 1998; Luthans and Sommer, 1999). The literature reveals
that indicators such as financial decline (Ahmadjian and Robinson, 2001;
Budros, 2002) or mergers and acquisitions (Budros, 2000; Conyon et al., 2002)
are common drivers of implementing downsizing initiatives. The literature is
mixed, but there is a slightly negative skew, regarding downsizings predictive
relationship with financial performance (Cascio et al., 1997; Cascio and Young,
2003; Datta et al., 2010). A plethora of research on individual level behavioural
and attitudinal reactions has been conducted (Cascio, 2010), revealing that the
change process itself seems to be indicative of whether positive or detrimental
individual level attitudes and behaviours surface (Datta et al., 2010).
Although a great deal is known about the prevalent practice of downsizing and
its consequences, there is still much to be learned (Datta et al., 2010). There is a
dearth of research examining macro-environmental antecedents (i.e. economic or
institutional factors) at play with downsizing. A scarcity of downsizing research
on non-financial organizational consequences also exists; the few studies exploring this stream commonly focus on such outcomes as firm reputation (Zyglidopoulos, 2005; Love and Kraatz, 2009) or innovation (Dougherty and Bowman, 1995).
Digging deeper into either of these streams is beneficial, but simultaneously focusing on both macro-environmental antecedents and organizational-level non-financial outcomes can provide valuable insight.
As such, the focus of this downsizing research is on macro-environmental
causes and organizational-level non-financial consequences. The case study
explores causes through an institutional theory lens, positing that downsizing

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Downsizing and Organizational Identity


strategies are often mimicked by organizations seeking legitimate change in times

of environmental uncertainty. The study also explores the process and consequences of organizational restructuring following downsizing, paying particular
attention to how those activities align with the organizations identity. This
research addresses the questions of why organizations downsize and what organizational implications arise from that decision.
The contribution of this article to the downsizing literature is threefold. First, it
focuses on two areas where the scholarly literature is sparse. Macro-environmental
factors are relevant to downsizing, especially during the global economic downturn; non-financial outcomes are important in providing a holistic look at downsizing. The second contribution answers a call by Datta et al. for research
using multi-theoretic perspectives (2010, p. 337). The article integrates institutional theory and an organizational identity perspective to dig deeper into the
black box of downsizing. The third contribution is in a field-based case study
research approach, in which the evolution of a downsizing change initiative is witnessed from its inception to post implementation. The case study documents the
organizational change that was witnessed and describes the events through a
theoretical lens.
Given the complexity of the topic and research endeavour, an outline of the
article is imperative. The article begins with a conceptual framework, describing
and defining downsizing within the existing literature and through an institutional
theory lens. Restructuring as a necessary phase of downsizing is then described,
and the importance of organizational identity in this process is introduced. An
overview of the organizational context is provided to unpack and contextualize
the constructs introduced in the conceptual framework. The case study is then presented, detailing the research setting, data collection, analysis and results sections.
The article concludes with discussion, implications and conclusion sections that
highlight the relevance of the findings.
Conceptual Framework

The term downsizing first appeared in an organizational context in the 1980s

and was defined as a strategy to streamline, tighten, and shrink the organizational structure with respect to the number of personnel employed by the
firm (Gandolfi, 2009, p. 415). Furthermore, organizational decision makers
employ downsizing as a change management tactic to improve efficiency and
performance (Cascio, 2010). The last three decades have witnessed a dramatic
increase in the use of downsizing in organizations (Freeman and Cameron,
1993; Morris et al., 1999; Datta et al., 2010). Along with this increase
comes heightened interest from the popular press, with headlines such as
Layoffs Spread to More Sectors of the Economy (Rampell, 2009) and Lay
Off the Layoffs (Pfeffer, 2010) becoming commonplace. Downsizing also
entered the academic arena as an area ripe for scholarly research. Even with
dozens of conceptual and empirical downsizing articles, there is still much
that remains unknown regarding this complex topic. Camerons (1994)

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K.M. Day et al.

assessment is still valid today, that is, downsizing is probably the most pervasive yet understudied phenomenon in the business world (p. 183).
A review of the downsizing literature reveals similarities in the areas of research
interest regarding this topic. Datta et al. (2010) reviewed and integrated the downsizing literature from 1984 to 2008 and categorized the main focal areas as either
antecedents or consequences of the downsizing initiative. The extant literature is
slightly unequal in the focus on antecedents or consequences, with consequences
slightly more prevalent.
Antecedents can be categorized as either organizational or environmental.
Organizational factors, such as firm characteristics, upper echelon attributes,
firm strategy and structure, are the most common focus of downsizing antecedents,
explored in 32% of studies (Datta et al., 2010). Environmental factors, including
facets of the economy, institution and industry accounted for only 11% of the
examined studies. Empirical examples reveal that downsizing adoption stems
from poor financial performance (Ofek, 1993; Iqbal and Shetty, 1994), decreasing
market share and shareholder value (Budros, 1997), mergers and acquisitions
(Budros, 2000; Conyon et al., 2002) and high-performance work practices (Osterman, 2000).
Consequences of downsizing as the focus in the literature is split between individual outcomes, organizational-level financial outcomes and organizational-level
non-financial outcomes, at 24, 23 and 10%, respectively. Individual outcomes
include the attitudes and behaviours of victims and survivors. Empirical investigations in this category have found undesirable consequences such as decreased
motivation (Brockner et al., 1993), lower employee satisfaction (Wagar, 1998),
lower levels of trust between employees and the top management team (Mishra
and Mishra, 1994), reduced co-worker support (Iverson and Pullman, 2000),
lower productivity (Budros, 1997), decreased creativity (Amabile and Conti,
1995) and reduced organizational commitment (Luthans and Sommer, 1999).
Organizational outcomes predominantly focus on financial indicators, such as
market share or accounting returns (Morris et al., 1999; Datta et al., 2010).
Some research in this stream evidences a link with increased financial performance; however, more studies demonstrate that many downsizing efforts have
shown to produce financial results that are dismal and economic consequences
that are devastating (Gandolfi, 2009, p. 418). Organizational reputation (Zyglidopoulos, 2005; Love and Kraatz, 2009) and innovation (Dougherty and Bowman,
1995) have been the focus of the few studies examining organizational-level
non-financial outcomes.
As stated, environmental factors represent the least studied antecedent in the downsizing literature; the least examined consequence of downsizing studies is non-financial outcomes at the organizational level. With little research attention paid to these
areas, many questions remain about both the reasons for and consequences of downsizing. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to further explore these specific areas
and open the black box by examining downsizing at the organizational level, with a
focus on environmental antecedents and non-financial outcomes.
Institutional theory is used to address the environmental factors attributed to
downsizing. DiMaggio and Powells (1983) seminal work on institutional
theory describes isomorphism, or the idea that homogeneity among organizations

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Downsizing and Organizational Identity


results from attempts at organizational change. Institutional isomorphism occurs

through mimetic processes; mimicking behaviour is spurred by environmental
uncertainty and the desire to be perceived as legitimate (DiMaggio and Powell,
1983; Kraatz, 1998; Sherer and Lee, 2002). In other words, organizations initiate
internal change in an effort to become more similar to the external organizations
they perceive to be legitimate and successful, especially in times of environmental
uncertainty (i.e. economic downturns, declining demand). Downsizing, as seen
through an institutional theory lens, often occurs because it is deemed to be a legitimate strategy and therefore worthy of mimicking (Tsai et al., 2006).
Little research attention is paid to non-financial organizational-level outcomes
of downsizing. As such, attention is paid here to organizational restructuring as
an outcome of a downsizing change initiative for several reasons. Restructuring
is tied to the downsizing literature and prescriptions are made to restructure
responsibly (Cascio, 2002). However, there are no empirical studies examining
the nuances of restructuring activity. In this article restructuring is categorized
as a non-financial outcome of downsizing, thereby adding to the dearth of literature in this stream. Furthermore, it is posited that exploring task-restructuring behaviour can provide consequential insight into mimetic isomorphism. A basic
premise behind institutional theory is legitimacy (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).
Organizations strive for legitimacy, which in turn is linked to their image and
internal identity (Gioia et al., 2000; Sherer and Lee, 2002). Organizational identity
is documented by the mission, but can be gleaned through the behaviour of the
organization (Whetten and Mackey, 2002). Task restructuring activities serve as
a proxy for organizational behaviour. As such, organizational behaviour directly
linked to isomorphic change is examined here.

Downsizing leaves organizations with vacated positions; the vacated positions

leave responsibilities abandoned, duties unfilled and tasks undone. Consequently,
organizations are forced to restructure. Restructuring is defined as organizing the
company in a different way to make it more efficient (Cascio, 1995). Cascio (1995,
p. 10) states, Responsible restructuring asks, how can we change the way we do
business, so that we can use the people we currently have most effectively?.
Restructuring is often forced upon companies after downsizing efforts in order
to reorganize jobs, tasks and individuals in organizations (Andrews and Stalick,
Restructuring can take several forms. One method is to eliminate jobs or responsibilities (Margulis, 1994). Eliminating activities requires careful and correct management; organizations must know which activities are low priorities and which
are considered essential or top priorities (Kubeck, 1995). Only those activities
deemed low in priority should be eliminated. In this way, essential and important
elements are not eliminated (Mahoney, 1994).
A second way to restructure after a downsizing initiative is to combine or merge
jobs and tasks (Margulis, 1994). This can be tricky because merging or combining
activities means that someone may be gaining new responsibilities. The newly
appointed individuals must be capable and willing to accept a job enlargement.

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K.M. Day et al.

Training may be needed to help employees take on new assignments (Henkoff,

1994; Lester, 1994). If merging tasks or assigning new activities to employees
is necessary, it is important that each decision is thought out and planned. Affected
individuals should be made aware ahead of time that their jobs may change (Carr
et al., 1996).
Restructuring can also take on the form of hiring, transferring or terminating
individuals (Henkoff, 1994; Petrozzo and Stepper, 1994). Hiring individuals
who are capable and willing to perform the job may be necessary. Terminating
or eliminating employees relates to eliminating jobs and tasks. Only employees
performing low priority jobs should be terminated. If valued employees are performing unnecessary tasks, transferring, training or eliminating such activities
might be appropriate (DuBrin, 1996).
Restructuring is necessary after companies downsize. The above-mentioned
methods are only examples of the many ways restructuring can occur. Regardless
of the method, managing the restructuring process requires a focus on the organizations identity. Gioia et al. (2000, p. 63) succinctly define identity as that
which is central, enduring, and distinctive about an organizations character.
The organizations mission or strategy reflects its identity (Whetten and
Mackey, 2002). Restructuring efforts should align with the mission to avoid
destroying the identity of the organization. If properly implemented, restructuring
allows the organization to reap the advantages of downsizing (i.e. cost reduction
and increased efficiency and profitability; Cascio, 2002). However, the negative
aspects of downsizing are highlighted when restructuring activities are not
planned or are mismanaged.
To recap, the extant downsizing literature reveals gaps in environmental antecedents and non-financial outcomes of adopting downsizing as an organizational
change strategy. Here, institutional theory is presented as a relevant framework to
the downsizing stream by highlighting its applicability as an environmental factor,
and restructuring is described as a non-financial outcome of downsizing, revealing
its importance in the change process. Restructuring, although discussed in the
downsizing literature, has yet to receive empirical attention in this stream, and
therefore, becomes a focus of this case study. The remaining sections describe
the case study by providing a general overview of the organizational context
and then a specific account of the restructuring activities following a downsizing
initiative implemented at a US university.
Organizational Context
Downsizing in Universities

A university was chosen as the organizational context of this study for several
reasons. First, it follows the lead of Gioia and Chittipeddi (1991) who acknowledge
that universities are worthy organizational research settings. Second, like their corporate counterparts, colleges and universities are not immune to the effects of economic downturns (Cameron and Smart, 1998). Higher education institutions across
the US continue to downsize at unprecedented rates. However, with the current
uncertainty and instability facing numerous countries around the world (especially

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Downsizing and Organizational Identity


those in the Euro-zone), it can be questioned whether those universities will also be
facing shortages in revenues. Third, given current societal trends, a focus specifically on knowledge workers, a predominant personnel type in the university
environment (Lewis et al., 2003), is warranted. Fourth, Kraatzs (1998) empirical
study of 230 colleges provides support for the mimetic behaviour within a collegiate
setting, thereby supporting the institutional theory lens adopted here.
Universities, large and small, public and private, have been negatively affected
by financial cutbacks and declining revenues (Farrell, 1993; Martin, 1994; AASCU
Policy Matters, 2010). One strategy these institutions have adopted to address
decreasing revenues is to downsize in hopes of becoming more efficient and flexible. This is a . . . new era one in which higher education would have to focus on
efficiency and increased productivity, with heavier teaching loads, reduced
student services, larger classes, fewer tenured faculty members, and leaner administrations (Breneman, 2002, p. 5). Unfortunately, downsizing has harsh connotations (Smollan, 2006), with people losing their jobs as the underlying negative
effect (Gandolfi, 2009).
To counter the negative effects of downsizing, many educational institutions
develop strategies that are more humane. One approach is to offer early retirement
incentives to encourage eligible personnel to leave (Feldman, 2003). Because
faculty and staff voluntarily choose to accept a retirement offer, the method is a
more benign means of reducing personnel (Jenny, 1974). In 1994, over 30% of
US colleges and universities offered early retirement as a downsizing option
(Lenckus, 1995). In more recent years, this option continues to be prevalent,
with early retirement plan announcements in the popular press from universities
such as Princeton (Knapp, 2009), Purdue (Indianapolis Business Journal, 2010),
Harvard (The Boston Globe, 2009) and Duke (Green, 2009), just to name a few.
Early retirement packages encourage employees to retire earlier than their target
retirement age (Feldman, 2003). Used as a downsizing activity, early retirement
can benefit the organization and the individual. Typical reductions in workforce
are handled by laying off individuals who have no choice. Early retirement programmes serve as an effective means of staff reduction, but employees make
the choice because the offer must be strictly voluntary to comply with the law
(Schachner, 1993). As Flynn (1995, p. 20) stated, these programs are beneficial
not just because they cut staff, but because they do so a little less painfully. An
organizations public and internal image is not as tarnished as in pure layoffs
because the plans are voluntary (Kuzmits and Sussman, 1988). Employees
benefit because they can leave their organizations on good terms with a bonus
and perhaps pursue other endeavours (e.g. work for other educational institutions
that are not experiencing financial stress; Feldman, 2003).
Although early retirement incentive programmes are more beneficial than pure
downsizing activities, they still have drawbacks (Okba, 1993). The same problems
with downsizing can also occur by offering early retirement packages. Aside from
those problems, there are unintended consequences that are specific to early retirement incentives (Schachner, 1993).
As mentioned, early retirement offers are voluntary. This is a benefit to an
organizations image, but in some aspects, it is also a drawback. As Schachner
stated, the downside of offering a voluntary program is that is it has to be

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K.M. Day et al.

made available to everyone in a certain class (1993, p. 6). In other words, early
retirement programmes run the risk of losing valuable employees. Lost expertise
often costs companies more than anticipated. The future success of companies can
be jeopardized. Kuzmits and Sussman (1988, p. 30) stated, the sword of downsizing contains two edges one that slashes labor overhead and one that has the
potential to carve a chunk of competent and skilled employees from the labor
force. Offers of early retirement must be made without discriminatory practices
(i.e. open to everyone). Organizations always face a risk because they have no
control over who may accept the plan.
A second problem resulting from the plan being voluntary is that organizations
do not know how many people will accept it. According to Koretz (1993), almost
two-thirds of organizations lost more employees through early retirement than
they had anticipated. This can be harmful for the organization because individuals
must be hired to fill the positions not intended to be open. This can be costly financially and may negatively affect a universitys core competencies. Most likely,
less experienced individuals will fill those open positions.
Another problem associated with early retirement plans is that they run the risk of
not being voluntary. Employees might view them as forced resignation that run
the risk of legal ramifications and considerable economic and emotional trauma
to the affected employees (Kuzmits and Sussman, 1988, p. 29). US lawsuits
have increased in number over the past few years. The Age Discrimination in
Employment Act passed in 1967 makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals
aged 40 and above. Early retirement plans often run the risk of violating this law.
Another potential negative is that offers of early retirement require large
amounts of cash outlays (Feldman, 2003). For the programme to be successful
in reducing the workforce, an economic benefit must be clear and enticing to
employees. Although universities may be saving money in the end, it can be
quite expensive on a temporary basis (Kuzmits and Sussman, 1988).

Any attempt at downsizing, including early retirement options, leaves organizations with vacated positions and lacking resources to cover key tasks. Consequently, the need to restructure emerges (Fisher and White, 2000). Mahoney
(1994) sets a few guidelines for university redesign and states that if followed, universities can emerge stronger and more efficient. The first guideline is to determine
the most important functions and departments of the university. In other words, can
the university eliminate unproductive programmes? Second, the university must
determine its main goal and mission. Is it research or teaching? The third guideline
concerns making alliances with nearby universities, colleges or organizations; any
activity which is not absolutely at the heart of your competitive strength is a candidate for outsourcing (Mahoney, 1994, p. 391). If these guidelines are followed as
part of restructuring efforts, a university has a better chance at success.
Case Study

The case study examines a university that downsized through the use of an early
retirement incentive. The terms and concepts of downsizing, early retirement and

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Downsizing and Organizational Identity


restructuring are explained through actual events at the university. A case study
approach allows researchers to explore the dynamics of the organization in a
real life setting (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 2011). It provides information and
details that using a survey of numerous companies or archival data cannot
provide. The following statement highlights the appropriateness of this method
for our research question: the essence of a case study, the central tendency
among all types of case study, is that it tries to illuminate a decision or a set of
decisions: why they were taken, how they were implemented, and with what
result (Schramm, 1971, p. 6).
All three essential aspects of case study research are addressed in this examination of: (1) the universitys decision to implement an early retirement incentive;
(2) how the university restructured activities, duties and responsibilities after
implementation; and (3) the results of restructuring. Informants in this study
were the local change agents charged with the operational responsibility for implementing the programme. They provided their perceptions of the process and
organizational consequences through in-depth interviews. The interview data
was traingulated using newspaper articles, transcripts of the presidents State of
the University Address, and direct communication with university officials in
the payroll and human resources offices. The use of multiple data sources provided
a more complete picture of the change process.
Furthermore, each of the authors was affiliated with the university in the case
study before, during and after the implementation of the downsizing initiative.
The authors were bystanders of each phase, watching as the events unfolded,
and therefore had the opportunity to apply a grounded theory approach to the
case study (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Grounded theorys methodological emphasis is to let interpretations emerge from the actors in the field with minimal intervention by the researcher and then compare them with academic concepts on the
topic. Theory is said to lay grounded in the data from the field and to emerge by
constantly comparing, fractioning, coding, and analysing observational and interview data until saturation is reached (Fendt and Sachs, 2008, p. 431). After the
early retirement programme decision was made, the authors reviewed the
events leading to the decision and compared the actions with the scholarly literature, finding a strong fit with institutional theory. Following post-implementation
interviews, a misalignment between the organizations mission and restructuring
activities emerged, allowing the authors to apply an organizational identity framework. Being able to assess the early retirement programme through both institutional theory and organizational identity lenses allowed the authors to provide
additional insight into the change process.
Research Setting

This qualitative inductive case study was conducted at a large, public, researchoriented university located in the southeastern US in which all the authors were
affiliated. Times were bleak, with the university facing annual declining state
revenue allocations. The president of the university announced the dire financial
situation in his State of the University Address. He said the university was
severely underfunded and the future looks considerably worse. He noted that

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K.M. Day et al.

the governor refused to approve tax increases that would benefit higher education.
The university faced a difficult decision about how to operate a quality university
with insufficient funds. The president then remarked that the university is up the
creek . . . but not without a paddle.
The paddle he referred to was a plan to increase revenue and cut costs so that the
university can pursue continued excellence. The plan for increasing revenue took
the form of increasing tuition incrementally until it reached the regional average.
The president elaborated on cutting costs at the university. He said, The problem
that we face is insufficient resources to support, at an acceptable level of quality,
all those things we want to do. The solution is to apply our resources to those functions deemed to be most important. He requested that each department and unit at
the university identify and rank relevant criteria in order of importance. He wanted
the departments to organize functions as high, medium and low priority. If costs
had to be cut drastically, it was important to eliminate those functions deemed to
be of low priority. It was important to make these distinctions, so that operations of
greatest importance would not be accidentally eliminated. The university president further remarked, My job would be a lot easier if we had plentiful resources
and no need to evaluate effort or results, but the problem exists and decisions will
have to be made.
Although the university followed the first guideline in the academic literature on
restructuring (i.e. determining the most important functions and departments), it was
all for naught. Less than two months following the presidents announcement, the
universitys board of trustees approved an early retirement incentive programme
aimed at reducing personnel costs, which made up 75% of the university budget.
The plan was offered to all employees eligible to retire under the state retirement
system. Criteria for participating employees were that they be at least 60 years of
age with at least 10 years of university service or have 25 years of service regardless
of age. The early retirement incentive was a lump sum payment determined by the
individuals salary multiplied by years in the retirement system multiplied by 2%.
As with all early retirement incentives, the university had limited control over
who decided to participate. That is, all eligible employees, regardless of departmental association, could participate. The university newspaper reported that
approximately 500 employees on two campuses of the university were eligible
for the programme; 160 were expected to partake in the plan. However, 222 or
almost half (44.4%) of those eligible accepted the offer. The payout cost the university nearly $6 million.
Of those accepting the early retirement offer, 203 were from the universitys
main campus, with 47 of those being university faculty with the rank of full professor, associate professor, assistant professor or instructor. These 47 persons were
engaged in a variety of teaching, administrative, public service and research
activities. They represented 32 departments across the universitys campus.
Those 32 departments were located within the colleges and schools of Agriculture,
Architecture, Business, Education, Engineering, Human Sciences, Liberal Arts,
Pharmacy, Sciences and Mathematics, and Veterinary Medicine.
The president acknowledged that the universitys reputation could not have
been developed and sustained without a dedicated and effective faculty.
However, the unexpected loss of faculty potentially threatened the positive

Downsizing and Organizational Identity


reputation they were hired to build. The challenge now faced by the university was
to determine how to positively restructure activities after the faculty loss so that it
could continue to operate at a high level of quality.

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Data Collection

In an attempt to discover how the university restructured tasks after the downsizing
activity, semi-structured interviews were conducted. Although the downsizing literature identifies the necessity of task restructuring (Andrews and Stalick, 1994;
Margulis, 1994), apparently no studies address the nature of this restructuring.
Therefore, a set of preliminary questions was drafted for use in the semi-structured
interviews. Subsequently, these questions were pilot tested in interviews with four
individuals. Two of these individuals were university administrators who examined
the content of interview questions. To test the interview procedure, the other two
pilot interviews were conducted with department heads who had experienced
faculty loss. Because of the piloting process, changes were made in the form and
content of questions used in later semi-structured interviews. The intent of the questions in the semi-structured interview was to capture information on: (1) what tasks
were performed by the faculty member who retired, (2) what tasks are performed
currently, and (3) by whom. A copy of the interview form used in the study is
provided as Appendix A.
Semi-structured interviews began following the pilot interview stage, with
heads of academic departments serving as informants in the study. It was
assumed that they would be most knowledgeable and able to comment on the
faculty retirees duties and responsibilities as well as their disposition following
retirement. Approximately nine months after faculty members accepted the
early retirement offer, the first author conducted personal interviews. Each interviewee was contacted by phone to arrange an appointment for an interview. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in the interviewers office, except for one
telephone interview. Department heads/chairs were given a set of questions to
read at the beginning of the interview so that they could follow along as the questions were asked. Interviewees were told that the information would be presented
in an anonymous manner. They were assured that information would be reported
in aggregate and individual responses would not be reported. Interviews lasted
from 15 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the number of faculty members retiring
from the department. Handwritten notes and audiotapes from each interview were
used in the analysis stage. A summary of the results was mailed to each interviewee in appreciation of their assistance.
A total of 27 department heads/chairs representing 29 of 32 departments that
experienced faculty retirements provided data for the study. Two respondents
served as department heads in each of two departments. Three department
heads opted out of the study. Of the 47 faculty retirees, 42 (89.4%) were previously affiliated with the 29 surveyed departments. All department heads interviewed had at least one faculty member retire from their departments because
of the downsizing programme. The high response rate is attributed to the
authors affiliation with the university, the research-oriented nature of the interviewees, and the promise to provide aggregated feedback.


K.M. Day et al.

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Data Analysis

When studying the disposition of duties, different aspects of the job were examined, and not the position as a whole. The aspects of faculty members jobs encompass many responsibilities and were therefore examined separately. Each of the 42
retirees jobs examined had a variety of teaching, administrative, outreach and
research activities. As the interview questions show, department heads were
asked a series of questions from each of these categories. A single open-ended
question was also asked to ascertain the department heads opinion of the early
retirement incentive.
The lead author coded the interview data by quantifying or categorizing the data
in aggregate; the coauthors validated the aggregated data for accuracy. Discrepancies were resolved by reviewing interview notes and audiotapes. As opposed to
computing an inter-rater agreement index, the authors were more concerned
about eliminating errors. Thus, in the few instances in which rater disagreement
occurred, the discrepancies were discussed and 100% agreement was achieved
(cf. Gregory et al., 2007; Ezzamel and Willmott, 2008). The data were analysed
in a collaborative fashion by all authors in the following steps: (1) the number
of pre-retirement faculty job tasks was examined; (2) the proportion of job
tasks eliminated post retirement was determined; (3) the employee type assigned
to the retained task was considered; and (4) the perceptions of the early retirement
plan were summarized. Coding and analysis specifics are described in more detail
in the step subsections.
Step 1. To understand the nature of work conducted by the retiree prior to retirement, the following were identified: the number of classes taught, the number of
administrative and public service duties assigned, and whether or not research was
conducted. The number of classes taught varied by department and depended on
the nature of other activities assigned to the faculty member. Administrative duties
included activities such as departmental committees, university committees, academic advising, and coordinating and directing groups. Outreach involved extension work and participation in continuing education programmes. Research
activities included activities supported by the university as well as funded by
outside contractors and granting organizations. Outcomes of research ranged
from publishing academic articles to aiding organizations in problem solving.
Each department head was asked to give the number of annual classes taught by
the faculty retiree prior to retirement. The actual number of classes was listed on
the coding sheet, then totalled and subtotalled by faculty rank. The number of
major administrative and outreach duties performed by the retiree prior to retirement were ascertained using the same process. Department heads were asked
whether the faculty retiree conducted research prior to retirement. Research activities were standardized by coding a no response as 0 (i.e. the retiree did not
conduct research activities) and a yes response as 1. Research numbers were
then aggregated in total and by faculty rank.
Step 2. Questions were asked to determine what happened to the retirees activities
following retirement. Each department head was asked to give the number of

Downsizing and Organizational Identity


Table 1. Examination of retiree teaching, administration and outreach, and research activities

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Full professor
Associate professor
Assistant professor


Classes taught


Per cent retained


Administration and outreach

Full professor
Associate professor
Assistant professor




Per cent retained


Full professor
Associate professor
Assistant professor




Percent Retained

Note: n/a not applicable.

faculty retirees classes, administrative and outreach duties retained post retirement. The actual number of classes and duties retained was recorded. Response
to the research activities question provided a percentage of research activities
still conducted. For example, if half of a retirees research activities were retained,
a score of .50 was entered. Responses were aggregated by task category and
faculty rank, and then divided the results to report the percentage retained.
Table 1 provides descriptive statistics of the interview data in aggregate form
(i.e. the results from Step 1 and Step 2).
Step 3. Reassignment of retained duties was analysed through responses to the
question assessing to whom the retirees work was shifted. In other words, if
the department head identified that three of a faculty retirees classes were
retained, they were then asked who was assigned to teach those classes. The
employee category information was coded and aggregated, showing that the university employed various methods. Existing faculty members, new temporary or
permanent hires were made, graduate students were used, and in some cases retirees were re-employed. Table 2 shows how reassignments were made. As interpretative example, existing faculty were teaching 54% of the retained classes; 4% of
administration and outreach duties were reassigned to new and permanent (i.e. not
on temporary appointment) faculty hires.
Step 4. The final step in analysing the data involved categorizing the department
heads perceptions of the early retirement programme. Interview notes and


K.M. Day et al.

Table 2. Reassignment and allocation of retained teaching, administration and outreach, and
research duties
Percentage of retained duties allocated to:

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Administration and outreach











Table 3. Frequency of reasons given by department heads concerning the early retirement
programme and its effectiveness


Number of times

Reasons why interviewees viewed programme as negative for their department

Lost faculty experience or faculty name recognition
Received little or no money to replace retiree
Negatively impacted current staff (e.g. overworked,
Students suffered (e.g. no research advisor; classes not
Not enough time to plan for the loss of a faculty member
Reasons why interviewees viewed programme as not negative for their department
No reason given
Was able to refill the position
Retiree planning to retire anyway (had already planned for
the loss)
New people were brought in (new blood)


Note: aSome interviewees viewed the overall programme as negative for their departments for more than one

audiotapes were used to assist in grouping similar responses; Table 3 lists the
reasons why respondents thought the downsizing programme was or was not detrimental to their departments.

According to direct communications with university officials, the downsizing plan

was intended to eliminate two-thirds of all retirees positions. However, no instance
was found in which all activities performed by retiring faculty members were completely eliminated. Instead, specific activities (e.g. teaching, administration and
outreach and research) associated with retirees positions were uniquely affected.
Therefore, effects of the early retirement programme were examined separately
for each of these specific faculty activities.
Depicted in Figure 1 are the percentages of each activity that were either eliminated or retained, showing that the university retained teaching activities to the

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Downsizing and Organizational Identity


Figure 1. Comparison of teaching, administration and outreach, and research duties eliminated and
retained by the university.

greatest extent and eliminated the majority of research activities, with administrative and outreach activities falling in the middle.
Teaching Activities

Of the 42 faculty retirees on whom information was obtained, 38 taught one or

more classes per year. The departure of these 38 faculty members left 223
classes without professors, requiring a determination of which classes to retain
or eliminate. Of the 223 classes taught by the retirees, only 11 (i.e. 5%) were eliminated (i.e. 212 were retained; see Table 1). Overall, the early retirement programme had little effect on class cancellations.
In general, a combination of existing faculty, temporary instructors, new permanent hires and graduate students were used in the reassignment of retirees retained
teaching activities. The most common method employed in the departments
involved using existing faculty to teach retirees classes (115 of 212 classes or
54%; see Table 2). However, when teaching activities were replaced, differences
were found in the rank of the individuals used to perform these activities. Retirees
with the rank of full or associate professor taught the overwhelming majority
(89%) of classes. In order to retain the classes, temporary instructors were hired
to teach 69 (33%) classes; new assistant professors were hired to teach 5 (2%);
and graduate students were assigned to teach 18 (9%) of the classes.
Administration and Outreach Activities

Retirees were also involved in administration and outreach activities. Of the 42

faculty retirees on whom information was collected, 40 performed administration
and/or outreach activities. Exactly 30% of the administration and outreach


K.M. Day et al.

activities were eliminated (i.e. 74 of 105 were retained; see Table 1). As shown in
Table 2, of the remaining 70% of administration and outreach service activities,
the overwhelming majority (87%) was shifted to existing faculty, followed by
temporary hires (9%) and new permanent hires (4%). Neither graduate students
nor the retirees were assigned these retained activities.

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Research Activities

A significant portion of faculty jobs involved conducting research. Of the 42 individuals, 33 were engaged in research activities, which included securing funding
from sources outside the university, as well as from internal programmatic
sources. Almost two-thirds of the research activities conducted by the retirees
were terminated completely; the remaining (38%) were retained (Table 1). Retention of research activities was of particular interest because the activities were
continued by the retiree and/or existing faculty. For 32% of the retained research
activities, the retiree alone (through temporary employment contracts) continued
to perform the research activities. Existing faculty assumed 48% of the retained
research activities, and the remaining were reassigned to temporary hires and
graduate students (Table 2).
Assessment of Organizational Effectiveness

Interviewees were asked their opinions regarding the early retirement incentive
offer. Many thought the incentive offer was beneficial to the individuals accepting
it. Even though the plan was often viewed as positive for the individual retiring, 18
of the 27 (67%) department heads/chairs interviewed stated that the downsizing
programme had a negative impact on their department.
Several interviewees thought offering this programme was a serious mistake on
the part on the university. Statements such as it damaged our department, there is
no question about it were made. Loss of name recognition from distinguished professors and loss of research money were mentioned as problems by different interviewees. Department heads thought the impact of the downsizing activity was
greatest on the remaining employees (i.e. survivors). They were left to do the
retained work, which led to stress from being overworked. Other interviewees
thought that students were the ones left suffering after downsizing and restructuring. Many academic advisors from departments and chairs of theses and dissertations retired. A few classes were no longer offered. Respondents thought this
would cause serious problems in the long run. This same sentiment was echoed
by an associate dean who was quoted in the newspaper; this is definitely detrimental to the reputation of many programmes. The more experienced people
are leaving the work in the hands of the less-experienced. Interviewees also mentioned that this programme was sprung on them, and therefore the department had
little time to plan for the following year. One department head stated that the university ought to offer incentives for our outstanding faculty to stay, not to go!
Importantly, department heads did not understand why they were asked to prioritize relevant cost-cutting criteria if the ultimate decision was to eliminate departmental personnel through an early retirement buyout. In short, the implementation

Downsizing and Organizational Identity


of the downsizing initiative left academic departments confused, frustrated and


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Having affiliation with the university during the events described in the case study
allowed the authors to witness factors leading to and resulting from the change
initiative. They were able to see institutional theory unfolding in practice. Institutional theory describes phenomena where an organization attempts change by
mimicking the behaviour of other legitimate organizations, especially in times
of environmental uncertainty (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983). The university in
the case study was facing a time of environmental uncertainty: the domestic
economy was in a recession; resources historically depended upon were slashed
by the state. This financial distress triggered the need to adopt change. Highly
reputable universities across the nation were adopting early retirement plans as
downsizing strategies. The case study university mimicked this strategy as it
was deemed to be a legitimate solution adopted by peer and superior institutions.
While mimetic isomorphism provides the rationale for implementing this type of
change behaviour, the theory does not address the outcomes of such action. As
such, a deeper look into the consequences was necessary.
Through interviews and steps in the data analysis process, the authors are able to
highlight three important findings. First, from an individual-level perspective, the
downsized survivors were left to do the work of the retirees. This finding was
apparent from the interviews, but also evident in the activity reallocation data.
Second, from a group-level standpoint, interviewees thought the downsizing
initiative had a negative effect on the department, mainly through the loss of
faculty name recognition. Both these findings are in line with the extant downsizing literature. The third finding has not been addressed in the extant literature and
has the potential to make a significant impact. This finding addresses the consequences of the change initiative at the organizational level, with a specific focus
on organizational identity.
Restructuring activities were analysed and findings reveal that the university did
not stay true to its identity of being a prominent research institution. This behaviour violates a restructuring guideline set forth in the literature (Mahoney, 1994);
namely, for the organization to determine and restructure according to its main
goal and mission. Results indicate the university eliminated retirees research
activities more so than any other category of job function. The focus instead
was on retaining teaching activities and, to a lesser extent, administrative and outreach activities. This is a surprising finding given that in the mission statement, the
university defines research as being essential to the mission and further states
that the university will continue development of its research programs. Research
activities are an important means of bringing external funding to the university
and also can increase the reputation and legitimacy of the organization as a
whole. It is ironic that the universitys behaviour of mimetic isomorphism
pushed them further from the identity they were striving to protect.
Department heads commented that the early retirement programme resulted in a
loss of reputation and research funds previously generated by the retirees. One

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K.M. Day et al.

measure of research success is the monetary value of research funds acquired by

university faculty. Loss of research funds is a loss of status among research universities, thereby negatively impacting the universitys reputation. Furthermore,
funded research projects produce overhead money (which is used to pay for
various types of insurance, utilities, equipment, other fledging research programmes, etc.), student support and training. One department head, for
example, noted that a faculty member of his department took the universitys
early retirement offer, took a job with another nearby, out-of-state university,
and moved his multi-million dollar research programme to the new university.
This is typically referred to as the double whammy (Bedeian and Armenakis,
1998). That is, from the standpoint of funded research, one university lost the
research funds while another university gained the research funds. Furthermore,
not only was the departmental reputation hurt by the loss, a competing universitys
departmental reputation was significantly enhanced.
Developing and maintaining a viable research programme is a long-term endeavour requiring the recruitment of unique faculty members having special skills,
abilities and interests. Successful researchers also enhance the instructional programme by exposing students to their unique research findings. Furthermore,
these researchers are instrumental in conducting outreach programmes (e.g.
short courses) for practising professionals. Eliminating research activities not
only has a detrimental impact on the research activities themselves, but also
trickles downward to negatively impact the value of the teaching and outreach
activities that are retained.

Universities across the US, as well as globally, are experiencing fiscal stress. In
coping with this stress, are university administrators are asking the right questions? For example, are the basic questions asked: How can we reduce the fiscal
stress being experienced? If we must reduce costs should we assess programmes
and identify and eliminate those that cannot be justified? Should we consider reducing salaries? And, should we offer early retirement programmes; if so, who will
elect to participate? Cost reduction is admittedly a complex process. Applying
mimetic isomorphism implies that decision makers might be trying to simplify
the cost-reduction process by implementing a downsizing strategy in the form
of an early retirement programme. It became apparent through the course of
this investigation that had the university conducted a thorough diagnosis and
ignored early retirement fads in higher education, a different strategy might
have evolved or at least different restructuring guidelines developed.
The case study suggests a warning to systems of higher education, and other
types of organizations, considering downsizing strategies. A thorough diagnosis
of the financial situation is imperative. All potential solutions should be considered instead of rushing into a kneejerk reaction and decision that may not
comport with the given situation. For example, Lederman (2011) details how
the University of Colorado System is now targeting specific faculty members to
voluntarily accept retirement packages, instead of offering the packages to all eligible faculty members. Although this practice is controversial, the university

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Downsizing and Organizational Identity


system is having success with the programme: they are not unexpectedly losing
faculty members they deem valuable; there is no need to quickly restructure
vacated tasks and responsibilities; academic departments reputations are not at
stake since retiring faculty members were targeted due to waning productivity.
Furthermore, faculty members accepting the buy-out are doing so voluntarily
and can move on to other opportunities with a hefty financial payout. This is an
example of a unique solution created to lessen the universitys fiscal stress that
is delivering much more success than the generic and mimetic solution
implemented by the university in our study.
Research shows that change initiatives fail more often than not (By, 2007;
Burnes and Jackson, 2011). Along with proper diagnosis, planning is imperative
(Armenakis and Harris, 2002; Cascio, 2002; By, 2007). Proper planning can
ensure that attention is paid to the organizations identity, thereby aligning initiatives with the ideals of the organization. Burnes and Jackson (2011) demonstrate
that a significant reason for the high failure rate of change initiatives is due to
this lack of alignment in values. Misalignments create an environment of ineffectiveness, as witnessed in Lofquists (2011) longitudinal study of the Norwegian
aviation industry. His study shows that the implementation method was mismatched with the culture of the organization, resulting in failure of the deliberate
change initiative. The results of this study indicate that restructuring decisions
resulting from the planned change event were not aligned with the universitys
mission statement. More in-depth planning was needed to determine how to effectively downsize and restructure without losing valuable research activities,
thereby staying true to the core identity.
Having the proper administrators in the planning and implementation phases is
also a necessity (Clair and Dufresne, 2004; Woodward and Hendry, 2004; Nikolaou et al., 2007). Kezar (2004, p. 444) writes
downsizing and restructuring without input from faculty, staff, or students is now
commonplace; yet studies demonstrate that program reduction or restructuring is
best implemented with input from the academic community . . . research suggests
that many trustees do not have the educational expertise to make sound decisions
and that institutions are suffering from choices that negatively impact the teaching
and learning environment.

As such, consulting with external resources (e.g. administrators who have successfully implemented early retirement programmes, consultants who advise colleges and universities on early retirement programmes) should be considered.
Involving departmental administrators (i.e. local change agents) is beneficial to
capitalize on local knowledge. This should aid in planning and can increase the
likelihood that whatever organizational change decisions are made, they will
stay true to the overall strategy of the organization.
A final word is needed to tie together the practical implications brought forth in
this study. Insights are provided by Bys (2007) findings from evaluating the
change readiness framework of Armenakis et al. (1993). He states, What is of
utmost importance is that organizations are change-ready and that conscious
decisions are made. Based on this . . . organizational change management may

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K.M. Day et al.

prove more successful if focused on facilitating continuous change readiness

rather than on implementing and managing specific change efforts (By, 2007,
p. 9). Although easier said than done, organizations need to prepare themselves
for change, constantly seek ways to become more efficient, and adopt change
thoughtfully, especially in light of the current economic conditions. This article
might have investigated and reported different findings if the university had
heeded this advice.
Answering a call from By et al. (2011), noteworthy societal implications from
this study are given, along with the above noted practical implications. The US is
in a crisis: it is in the midst of an economic recession; is witnessing the retirement
of the baby-boomer generation; and is facing an increased demand for knowledge
workers in order to remain competitive in the global landscape. This study highlights an organization that specifically targeted the baby-boomer generation in its
downsizing initiative. By doing so, these highly educated knowledge workers left
their employ early, leaving tasks to be reassigned to less-skilled workers and other
more important tasks to be eliminated. This is a time at which organizations may
want to instead consider methods to keep this generation employed given the
shortage of knowledge workers in the following generations. Hilton (2008)
states that one of the USs key strengths is that it is home to many of the
worlds best research universities (p. 64). What are the domestic and global implications if research universities continue to downsize and eliminate tasks in the patterns we witnessed in our study?

Downsizing is a current issue confronting many organizations. This study

explored the complex nature of these change initiatives, through both macroenvironmental antecedents and non-financial organizational consequences. The
adoption of downsizing strategies was conceptualized through an institutional
theory lens and an organizational identity perspective was applied to downsizing
outcomes, paying particular attention to the alignment of post-downsizing activities and the organizations mission. These concepts were contextualized in a case
study account of an organizational change event.
The case study examined the events leading up to the implementation of a
downsizing initiative and then the post-implementation restructuring aftermath.
The restructuring process is considered to be less effective because the university
preserved teaching, administration and outreach activities to a much greater extent
than research activities. Thus, the universitys behaviour and its own identity were
misaligned. This study demonstrates how organizational change can result in lessthan-expected outcomes if inadequate attention is given during the planning and
implementation phases. In an attempt for legitimacy, the university modelled its
change strategy after other institutions, ultimately creating an environment for
Although mimicking the behaviour of legitimate organizations may on the
surface be appealing, it is important to understand the ramifications of those
actions underneath. Attention must be paid to the entire change process. For
example, how did the peer organizations restructure after downsizing? Did they

Downsizing and Organizational Identity


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stay true to their core identity, and what were the results? This study reveals that
mimetic isomorphism at the expense of organizational identity might be an ineffective strategy. An organizations identity is distinctive; it is what sets the organization apart from other organizations. In this study, the universitys identity was
wrapped up in its outstanding faculty and research reputation. Both were sacrificed
when the university decided to copy the behaviour of others and then failed to
restructure to its strength. Will other universities commit similar mistakes, thus
ultimately creating a societal void in research-oriented universities?

The authors would like to acknowledge Rune By and three anonymous reviewers
who were instrumental in the development of this article. We would also like to
thank Anne Smith and Blake Mathias for their insightful comments and

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Interview Form
1. According to our research, you had x number of early retirees from your
department. Their names and positions are person A and position, person B
and position, etc. Is this correct?
2. What classes did person A teach and what quarter? How many sections of the
class? How many students on average?
3. Is the class(s) still being taught? If yes: What quarters? How many sections?
How many students?
4. If answered yes to number 3, who is teaching the class(s) now? Is it an existing faculty member (if yes: one or many) or a new hire (if yes: is it an exact
match)? What is the rank of the person teaching the class(s) (i.e. instructor,
assistant, associate, or full professor)?
5. What general responsibilities did person A have outside the classroom? (i.e.
committees, office hours for students, seminars, public service, etc.)
6. Are any of these responsibilities still being performed? Which ones?
7. If answered yes to number 6: Who is performing those responsibilities? Is it
an existing faculty member (if yes: one or many?) or new hire (if yes: is it an
exact match?) What is the rank of the person performing those responsibilities
(i.e. instructor, assistant, associate, or full professor)?
8. What, if any, research activities were conducted by person A?
9. Has the research been continued, replaced by other research, or discontinued?
10. If answered continued or replaced to number 9: Who continued or replaced
the research activities? Is it an existing faculty member (if yes: one or many?)
or a new hire (if yes: is it an exact match?) What is the rank of the person conducting the research (i.e. instructor, assistant, associate or full professor)?
11. Has person A been hired back on a part time basis? If yes, describe the nature
of their appointment.
12. What is your reaction to the use of the early retirement incentive programme?
Has it had a positive or negative effect on your department?