Story 11: Learning to Lead

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TIAA Retirement Plan (1965)

Written by Mike Spock

When I got to the museum, senior staff members (Phyllis O'Connell, assistant director and acting director when I arrived; Miriam Dickey, director of education; and Ruth Green, director of loans and collections) had all been there for more than a decade and each made only $5,000 a year. Even in the 1960s, this was roughly half what they could command in a comparable public school job. I made some hay by pointing out that there was only one board member who was annually contributing more than Phyl, Miriam, and Ruth to the finances of the museum. In fact, all three women were still living with members of their families in the houses they grew up in, which made it possible for them to survive on our inadequate salaries. As if that weren't bad enough, each was well into her fifties and there was no provision for their retirement. When it came time, the implicit assumption was that the board would vote a contribution each year during their retirement, although there was no guarantee that the funds would be in place or the board would remember to actually make it happen.

Board member John Spring had grown uncomfortable about this uncertain arrangement and offered to work on getting a formal retirement plan in place. At our first meeting John, who had served on the boards of several independent schools, suggested that we look into TIAA (the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association begun by Andrew Carnegie in 1918 as a way to support the financial well-being of college teachers) as an affordable retirement vehicle. It turned out that there was no precedent to support our application for membership in TIAA since we were not an academic institution.

We scrutinized TIAA's guidelines more carefully. What were the criteria for being considered a school, college or university? You had to offer regularly scheduled courses. Well, we had teacher workshops, afterschool clubs, and a summer day camp. Over the phone, the sympathetic TIAA representative suggested we put together an application emphasizing these features. And damned if we weren't accepted! As far as we know, we were the first museum not directly affiliated with a college or university that made the grade. All of us who are now in our dotage are feeling tremendously grateful to have been swept up in Andrew Carnegie's generous embrace and John Spring's extraordinarily insightful opportunism.

Of course we had to decide exactly what our retirement policy would look like, just how generous the museum would be, whether our matching contributions would be voluntary or not, and how we would compensate for the time already served by the three senior members of the staff, and so on.

Employees initially resisted coming up with a matching contribution when they were forced to join the plan (by the anniversary of the first year of employment and reaching their thirtieth birthday, membership would be mandatory). We finessed the issue by making sure that when each of us joined the plan, a salary increase was timed to cover the added cost of the employee's match without suffering any loss in actual take-home pay.

Among all the things I am proudest of was how John Spring, the board, and I found a way to put the museum's humane retirement plan in place.

Next: College Work-Study Program (1965)