When is the time right for retirement?

Fourteen months ago I retired at the age of 65 from my position as Professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. It was with some trepidation I did so, because in addition to retiring, I also moved with my wife to Nanaimo, BC, after 21 ½ years in Prince George (PG). That meant leaving our younger son (age 23 at the time), friends and colleagues behind to start a new life on the coast. As with any change, there were advantages and disadvantages with the move. Was it the right decision for me to retire and move, or should I have stayed in PG with its familiar surroundings, friends, and access to the university as Professor Emeritus? These are questions that still pop into my mind from time to time. Here is a short essay with some thoughts on where I am at after a year.

UNBC was created from the ground up, so as a charter faculty member I was part of a cohort of faculty who felt that UNBC was “our university”. What I mean by this is that we started with a blank slate, but through a cooperative effort, we created what became British Columbia’s 4th research university. We could have settled into the role of teaching undergraduate courses, but that was not the mindset of myself or my colleagues. The research focus was particularly true for our Faculty, Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, or NRES as the unit was known. Led by the people in charge of NRES (Dean Fred Gilbert and five academic Programme Chairs), we immediately set out to create a graduate program, including Master’s and PhD level programs. The sub-units (Departments) were designated “Programmes” (note spelling to distinguish from course programs) to emphasize the interdisciplinary approach of much of what we wanted to do, although some units in other faculties fought to become Departments pretty much from the start. Most faculty members also created research programs that for a small university were rather successful. We were aided by the startup of Forest Renewal BC, which provided a significant source of funding for many of us. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but in the process of building our institution, we forged friendships that last even today. Our longest serving President, Dr. Charles Jago, made some significant changes to the administrative structure of the university, including the merger of NRES with several science programs as well as Business. While I believe that hurt us a lot (Dean Gilbert left, as did several of our original Program Chairs, and we lost the cohesiveness of our five interdisciplinary programs), I also think that on balance, Dr. Jago advanced the interests of UNBC over his years at the helm. Thus, my initial years at UNBC were intense, satisfying, and exciting.

The highlight of my career at UNBC was the period when the Forest Insect Research Group was at its peak. With four entomologists and numerous students, UNBC’s presence in forest entomology was strong. Read more in the ESC Bulletin, p. 18 Photo: Michael Rutherford.

Why did I retire? In large part this had to do with the ever increasing bureaucracy at the university, along with increasing tension between the administration on the one hand, and faculty and staff on the other. The last few years of my tenure at UNBC included several failed searches for a President (in the sense that two stepped down after 2 and 4 years, respectively, long before their term was up. UNBC’s current President came in just after a relatively favourable arbitration decision for faculty (verbally, if not in practice), but with relationships deterioriating further as that decision came down just months before the next contract was due. The two negotiating teams were not communication (my own biased opinion [based on information from other institutions] was that the Board of Governors were given marching orders from the Provincial Government), which eventually led to unionization of faculty and a strike. The new President’s handling of the situation did not endear him to faculty. The strike led to a significant improvement, but tempers had barely settled before this was followed (after my departure) by the appointment of James Moore, a by many faculty and students very unpopular new Chancellor. He was seen as unsuitable as a former member of the Stephen Harper federal cabinet, which stood for values diametrically opposed to those of UNBC. For example, the Harper government had dismantled environmental protection legislation, while UNBC had trademarked itself as Canada’s Green University! To make a long story short, UNBC had become a stressful work place for me, and having lived through a heart infarction in 2007, that was the last thing I needed. Health scares have a way of changing your outlook on life. You start realizing how precious life is, and that you should live life to the fullest while you still can.

In addition to working conditions, or perhaps in part because of them, I also felt that I had lost the will to update and improve my teaching in a way that I thought students deserved from a professor. My teaching evaluations remained strong (4.5-4.9 out of 5), but I doubt that such evaluations really speak to the quality of teaching. I have heard some refer to them as popularity contests, and there is definitely some truth to that. Nevertheless, the result was that I found it hard to motivate myself to prepare for lectures, which in turn led to dissatisfaction with my own performance, i.e., I would feel as if I failed to deliver material in the way I wanted to. Lecturing is in many ways a performance, where your job is to keep students engaged. When you lose the ability to keep their attention, you also lose effectiveness as an instructor.

The end of the road. Convocation 2016, where I was appointed Professor Emeritus. Copyright UNBC.

Finally, increasing red tape with respect to field research, including graduate student research, made that part of my job less attractive as well. Seemingly endless forms and regulations appeared designed to trip you up, rather than help you along, giving me the feeling that we had little or no support for research from the institution. In fairness, the intent of the bureaucracy was admirable, e.g., better safety provisions, but the implementation tended to be done as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which was frustrating for someone stuck in their ways, as I probably was. I know I am not alone in these sentiments – I recently talked to a colleague who is retiring from a major research institution and inquired why he decided to step away? He mentioned some of the same issues at his institution, so while I am sure that your own personality has a lot to do with how you perceive changes, there are some real impediments being erected as regulations are tightened.

As a result of all the (real or perceived) negatives described above, I feel that my decision to retire was the right one for me. I simply was not enjoying work anymore. If I had enjoyed it the way I did earlier in my career, I would have stayed at UNBC in Prince George for a few more years I am sure. As it is, I am happy with my decision, even if the adjustment to life in Nanaimo has been slower than anticipated. You don’t replace 21+ years of community just like that. But there are positives, for example visitors are now commonplace, whereas PG seemed to be out of the way for most people. We have had more visitors in our first year in Nanaimo than we had in all the time we lived in PG. We are close to Vancouver and Victoria, live 15 minutes from two ferry terminals and the Nanaimo airport, and we have a wonderful place for gardening, bird watching, photography and other activities we enjoy. I have made some connections in the naturalist world (including doing some public presentations), joined a flyfishing club, and I have a group of golfing friends. I also have made connections at Vancouver Island University, the BC Forest Service, and the Royal BC Museum, where I am a volunteer in the entomology collection. Finally, I have served as examiner on a few theses at the University of BC, and Simon Fraser University,  so I have had some occasional involvement in academia still.

November morning at my new home. Relaxing and good for the soul.

When is it time to retire? Well, I think that is a question that has no right or wrong answer, because it is a completely personal choice. If there was one overreaching piece of advice, it would be to ask yourself “Am I having fun”. If the answer is no, then it may be time to make a closer assessment of where your life is at.

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About cinnabarreflections

B. Staffan Lindgren is Professor Emeritus at UNBC. Living in Nanaimo, BC. Jack of all trades trying to stay relevant.
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