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Essay on the responsibility of academics to think about retirement

Hey, You, Get Off My Chair
April 16, 2012

Perhaps the best way to look at retirement is to remember what Mick Jagger looked like performing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 and how the 68-year-old Sir Mick looks these days, gingerly moving across the stage. The same goes for higher education, where some senior professors are vibrant educators and some can be seen trudging to the classroom to listlessly recycle greatest hits. In the latter case it’s the students and institution that can’t get no satisfaction.

College and university professors and presidents owe it to their students -- to offer instruction from a faculty and leadership brimming with vitality and innovation — delivered by professors across a wide age spectrum. Moreover, as college costs rise and students and their parents rightly expect top-of-the-line results from their college, every institution must redouble efforts to ensure the reality of delivering a life-changing education that lives up to the college's perception of its product.

I've been thinking about retirement and colleges quite a bit lately. After all, I’m 64 and planning to retire from the presidency of Juniata College just after I turn 65 next year. And I’m the co-author, with Jay Chronister, of the 1987 book Incentive Early Retirement Programs for Faculty. So, I have some skin in the conversation. 

When to retire is a big issue for individuals and the institutions that they serve. Those of us who have been around higher education know two things: First, a few faculty members (and perhaps a few college presidents) retired "in place" long before they reached age 65. Second, there are many faculty members who have more to contribute to their institutions, departments and disciplines after age 65. 

I'll leave the issue of how to deal with those who have retired "in place" to others.

The question about how to manage those who continue to be productive and want to stay on is a big one. If you have a rock star professor who is still bringing in record crowds or Top Forty research grants after age 65 there are serious issues to consider beyond the classroom.

First, these individuals are expensive. They are generally tenured, often hold endowed chairs, and are at the top of the faculty compensation scale. While they might be great teachers and/or researchers, they can often be replaced by a young faculty member at less than half the cost.

Most of us leading colleges and universities must consider the expense of those who continue to want to be employed after age 65 because of the national attention on the cost of higher education and faculty compensation is often the largest slice of that cost.

Second, it is important is that we continue to recruit and retain newly minted professors and experienced faculty to ensure the long-term vitality of our programs. Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals the number of professors aged 65 or over has doubled between 2000 and 2011. According to a 1978 report from the American Council on Education on raising the mandatory retirement age, the percentage of faculty over age 60 was then 8 percent. If the percentage leaps to more than 30 percent, as it has at various institutions nationwide, faculty and presidents should be concerned. The glut of gray-haired faculty in part was created by the 1986 Amendment to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibited a mandatory retirement age. The exemption for higher education has now long expired. It’s also true that individuals are living longer and are able to contribute to their profession at older ages. So what can a poor college president do?

Colleges and universities must:

  • Kick in adequate contributions to retirement plans so that faculty members (and all employees) can retire around age 65.
  • Start a phased retirement program that provides opportunities for continued teaching and research and allows amenities such as office and research space.

On the flip side, faculty members have to put their own skin in the game. They should:

  • Give up tenure at age 65 -- a move that ensures younger superstar faculty will have an opportunity to stay at the institution.
  • Relinquish endowed chairs or professorships. In this case, time is not on a younger professor’s side. If they cannot see a path to promotion they will go elsewhere.
  • Take a reduced salary based on a pay scale similar to incoming faculty. Yes, when you play with salary questions, you’re playing with fire, but in most cases living expenses go down as we educate our kids and pay off homes. And Mick Jagger solo makes less than the Stones. Much less.

Many older faculty members have much to contribute to their institutions, but they also have an obligation to their profession to open spots for talented upstarts. If younger professors see elders are making room for them, wild horses can’t drag them away from that campus.

 

Bio

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College.

 

 

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