Tapping into the potential of late-career professors (essay)
The Potential of Late-Career Professors
Articles and reports about the graying of the professoriate have been predicting problems for colleges and universities at least since the abolition of a mandatory faculty retirement age in 1994. Some of these predictions have become reality, as the number of faculty members aged 65 and older doubled between 2000 and 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As the large cohort of “baby boom” professors grows older, stories of what this trend means for the academic community seem to be multiplying. These narratives are typically cautionary at best and often take a negative tone, framing late-career faculty as a financial burden for institutions and a barrier for aspiring faculty who are prevented from entering the academic profession by aging professors who increasingly postpone retirement.
The standard narrative appropriately raises concerns about the flow of talent through the academic profession and the considerable cost of faculty at the higher ranks. However, it also seems to overlook the assets that faculty develop over a lengthy career and the distinctive contributions senior professors can make when institutions use their talents fully and creatively.
In contrast to the dominant story line, we argue that colleges and universities should think of late-career professors as distinctive assets that can be utilized in diverse ways to the benefit of their institution and its various stakeholders—students, junior colleagues, alumni, and administrators.
A 2-Part Series
Today: Why institutions should pay more attention to what their late-career professors can offer.
Coming Monday: Advice for senior professors on how to make the later stage of their career vital and vibrant.
Our focus in this essay is on late-career faculty who have served as professors for 20 or more years and are at least 55 years of age. In other words, they are firmly located in the later years of an academic life. Many senior professors who meet these criteria have developed a great deal of intellectual and social capital over the course of their professional lives.
Some are world-class researchers. Some are especially effective teachers. Some have well-developed administrative skills and can run programs effectively. Others understand departmental and institutional governance and can pilot new initiatives through the complex academic governance system.
Along with these skills, many late-career professors have built extensive professional networks they can draw upon to help younger professors who are just starting to form a web of professional contacts. Likewise, many senior professors have maintained relationships with alumni whom they can call upon to aid current students and support innovative projects their department or institution wants to implement.
Too often long-serving professors fall off their institution’s radar screen. They have demonstrated their competence through the demanding tenure process and may be taken for granted by department chairs and deans more concerned with launching the careers of newly hired professors. Fully capitalizing on the assets of senior professors requires that institutions, especially at the department and program level, take a closer look at their senior professors. They need a process, formal or informal, to identify the key strengths, skills, and interests of senior faculty.
Taking full advantage of senior faculty assets may also involve negotiating new roles, duties, or areas of emphasis. This approach acknowledges that faculty interests and skills usually evolve as their careers unfold over decades of professional service and as institutional circumstances and needs also change.
An accomplished veteran professor brings different experience, knowledge, and skills to the academic community than a newly minted early-career professor. For example, a senior professor may be uniquely qualified to plan an orientation and mentoring program for junior faculty at their institution. Likewise, a seasoned professor whose family is raised may have more flexibility to engage in their institution’s international initiatives than an early-career colleague with school-aged children and scholarly commitments that may limit their geographic mobility. By developing a process of career review and reflection for senior professors, colleges and universities can help identify concrete ways veteran professors can meet shifting institutional needs while also helping the professors identify specific new professional goals that are energizing and rewarding. This can be a win-win situation for senior professors and the institutions they have served for many years.
Moreover, the intellectual and social capital faculty build over a lengthy career do not expire with retirement. Higher education institutions should also consider how they can more strategically engage vigorous retired professors who wish to continue to serve their college or university. A growing number of institutions have recognized the potential of their emeritus professors and have established retired faculty organizations or “emeritus colleges” to provide outlets for continued service of retired faculty to their institution and its larger community. Indiana University, Cornell, Emory, the University of Southern California, and Arizona State University are among the institutions that have strong organizations to support emeritus faculty and engage them in ongoing learning, teaching, scholarship, and service activities. These organizations vary with the needs of their emeritus faculty and the traditions of their institutions.
Nowhere is benign neglect of late-career veteran professors a formal institutional policy, but in many institutions it appears to be the norm.
However, they share a commitment to extending academic life beyond the formal boundaries of an academic career. Many of these organizations provide opportunities for emeritus professors to teach special topics courses, mentor junior faculty, tutor students, participate in seminars and cultural excursions with their retired colleagues, and engage with university and community service projects. This variety of opportunities provides retired professors a venue for continuing their own intellectual stimulation while they give back to their institutions. These relatively low-cost enterprises (most have modest budgets below $200,000 and many use even fewer monetary resources) can yield benefits for professors and institutions that far exceed the programs’ operational costs.
Strategic efforts to identify and utilize the specialized talents of late-career and retired professors can yield many benefits. By identifying professional opportunities more closely aligned with senior professors’ interests, skills, and accumulated experience, institutions can keep them engaged in fulfilling work and productive even beyond the end of their formal careers. Likewise, institutions can more fully capitalize on their newer faculty by distributing tasks and projects consistent with their professional strengths and development needs. For example, a skilled senior faculty grant writer may work closely with a junior colleague on early grant proposals. Likewise, a senior professor with a particular love of teaching may agree to an overload teaching assignment to free up a pre-tenure professor who has time-consuming research demands while working to establish a scholarly reputation.
A continuing affiliation with emeritus professors can help colleges and universities maintain a reserve pool of flexible and readily available faculty resources to help institutions adapt to rapidly changing program needs in a time of fiscal constraint. For example, a sudden spike in enrollment may necessitate hiring a temporary faculty member for one or two semesters to help meet student demand. This would be an ideal position for an emeritus professor who already has ties to the institution, is familiar with its resources and procedures, and does not expect or want full-time employment. This arrangement could also help departments who may not have the resources to hire full-time tenure track or even full-time adjunct professors, but may have some funds to pay an emeritus professor for a short-term teaching assignment.
Retired professors can also play roles as liaisons to the larger community by offering enrichment courses, giving lectures on current issues, and serving as expert consultants. Clear options for meaningful institutional relationships and engagement post retirement may also make retirement more appealing to some late-career professors who are reluctant to end their professional careers.
We are asking colleges and universities to acknowledge and respond purposefully to the realities of academic life. In recent years, many department chairs and deans, have begun to make accommodations (e.g., course reductions, limited committee assignments, mentoring programs, pre-tenure research leaves) to help new professors build a successful record of accomplishment. No one doubts the long-term benefits of supporting early-career professors as they learn to fulfill their duties effectively and build a solid foundation for an academic career.
However, higher education has been far less strategic in supporting long-serving faculty -- both pre- and post-retirement. In a national search for programs and policies intended specifically to support late-career faculty, we found few concrete examples to share. Nowhere is benign neglect of late-career veteran professors a formal institutional policy, but in many institutions it appears to be the norm. This is a norm most institutions can no longer afford to accept. We live in a time where much is demanded of higher education, but resources are increasingly constrained. Educational institutions cannot afford to neglect or overlook the distinctive assets their older faculty (late-career and retired) possess and are eager to share.
Policies that encourage senior professors to engage in periodic review of their performance and professional goals and allow deans and department chairs to negotiate revised responsibilities are necessary to take fuller advantage of the gifts senior faculty can share with their institutions. These policies are also needed to ensure that senior faculty across the board are treated fairly and consistently.
Like all members of the academic profession, senior professors should be held to high standards of performance. At the same time, these standards should recognize the distinctive nature of the later academic career and permit adjustments that will encourage late-career professors to conclude their careers with fulfilling work that will support their colleagues and the mission of their institutions. Opportunities to conclude an academic life with engaging work that is valued by fellow professors and academic leaders is a recipe for a smooth transition to retirement. Colleges and universities that support senior faculty, before and after retirement, should find that these institutions do not have a senior faculty bottleneck at all but a vigorous academic community where professors across the career contribute to the institution’s mission in distinctly different ways.
Roger G. Baldwin is a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University, and Michael J. Zeig is a graduate research assistant in the College of Education there.