Utilizing America's Most Wasted Resource
How often have we heard, “People with talent and ideas are America’s greatest resource”? And yet, while colleges and universities have as their primary goal the delivery of top quality academic programs, few take full advantage of the talents that are available to help meet this goal from the retired professionals in their communities.
In most university and college communities there is a growing pool of talented retired or transitioning individuals who would like nothing more than to make a difference by using their knowledge and experience to improve their communities and institutions while continuing the process of their own personal development.
Added to this resource is the emerging wave of boomers who will be not retiring in the traditional way. They will be reinventing themselves as they enter new careers and develop new active roles of service. These will be professionals from a wide variety of fields (education, health, government, the arts, business and nonprofit executives, scientists, engineers, and retired military etc.) who have the energy, interest and ability to continue as active contributing members of society for a longer period of time than any preceding generation. With each year thousands of highly trained individuals are added to this growing but under-utilized pool of talent.
Unfortunately, few colleges and universities have made any formal attempt to develop a successful working relationship between the institution and this exciting and capable source of talent. Relationships have been more a matter of chance than conscious planning.
Most of these focus on the use of retired faculty living in the area or local professionals to serve as part-time faculty to meet a very specific and unmet instructional need. For many retired individuals, this form of relationship is inappropriate, of little interest, or impractical since they may be available for periods of time that do not mesh with the academic calendar. The question then becomes how to best take advantage of more diverse individuals to improve the quality of our institution?
There are a wide range of possible options for involving transitioning or full-time retired persons in the day to day operation of every institution. The alternatives have the potential not only of being extremely beneficial to a college or university and to the community, but at the same time can significantly improve the personal well-being of those who are offering their services. The institution, the community, and the volunteer can all gain from this relationship.
Using the Talent
In addition to teaching a course for credit, other services that these individuals can provide are:
Professional Expertise: Building on their backgrounds, they can serve as guest lecturers, members of panels or as special advisers to students working on team projects In addition, they can be tutors for students who enter courses with special needs or mentors to those students who would like assistance as they address advanced topics in greater depth. The challenge here for faculty is finding the right person or persons with the right set of competencies who will be able to mesh into the instructional sequence that is planned.
Life Experiences: One area of possible service that is often overlooked is the ability for these individuals to bring to the classroom a perspective that may have little or nothing to do with their professional fields of expertise. For example, in every community there are individuals who have lived through the depression of the early 1930’s, served in the military in WWII or the wars that followed, individuals who have lived through the Holocaust or other major genocides, people who have had to face religious or racial intolerance, were active in the Civil Rights Movement, have lived through the challenges of moving to the United States from another country, or have spent parts of their careers working overseas. In each instance, their participation can add a unique dimension to any class studying these periods or subjects. Bringing experts in music, art, or theater into a discussion of a particular period of time or social movement or inviting natives of other countries to discuss the culture and attitudes of different societies can add a texture to a discussion that is otherwise impossible. The key, once again, is the creative use of these various talents within the context of courses and programs.
In nontraditional settings: As more institutions view the out-of-classroom environment as a vital element of the academic and learning experience, these individuals can be used as guest resident counselors, club advisers, program consultants, discussion leaders, etc. Not only can they add a vital element of reality that is so often missing in such activities but, in many cases, they may be available to students at times and in places when most faculty are not.
Adding another dimension: There is one additional use of these citizens that, while rarely taken advantage of, can be of significant benefit to the entire institution. Recent research on how people think has shown that as people mature they become what has been called “transformative” or “critical” thinkers, willing and able to question assumptions, beliefs and traditions. With their extensive backgrounds, these individuals have the potential of adding a unique element to a classroom and the campus. These mature and experienced people can help both students and institutional leaders make plans for the future and address new and often unique challenges.
There are a number of existing programs that can provide details on various approaches. As institutions and communities are different, so are the options. Every program reflects the unique culture of the sponsoring institution; they are not cut from any cookie cutter.
The Elderhostel Institute Network is a central office providing information and resources for Institutes for Learning in Retirement (ILR) in the United States, Canada and Bermuda. Elderhostel and Olli programs (the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes) provide a core of talented retired individuals. In many other countries these programs are known as Universities of the Third Age (U3A). See this Web site for a complete listing:
In the U.S. there are four interesting programs that reflect this diversity:
- The Plato Society, at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a good example of an active program in a complex multipurpose university, with excellent outreach in the community.
- The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement is one of the oldest programs in the nation with a selective membership and serving primarily higher education professionals in the Cambridge region.
- The North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement is part of an extensive research program in adult learning issues. The outreach and variety of programs it offers has become a major force in drawing early retirees to this region of the country.
- The Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College is one of the earliest and most comprehensive programs in the U.S. In a single day, members are advising students, participating in formal on-campus class activities, or attending peer led sessions for members on drama, studio arts computer technology, science and society, the classics, magic, music, current events, and offering a public forum on “The Politics of Identity in a Global Context." Members with scientific backgrounds have, at the request of government officials, conducted a major study of water resources in the region while others played a key role in designing a leadership training program for implementing change for school districts that was funded by a major community foundation in the area. In the course of a year, 28 forums and lecture series in archeology and musicology were given by members for the general public. Members served on many nonprofit boards and government agencies and played an active role in Elderhostel programs offered at the institution. An annual publication includes creative research and writings by members. Working with Eckerd College, the academy also serves as the sponsor and source of coaches for the college’s student award winning participation in the annual national Ethics Bowl. Members have been requested to serve in about 100 class rooms as either “faculty colleagues” or “resource” persons. In addition, one member, a retired diplomat, funded an endowed scholarship in International Affairs and the members contributed about $750,000 to renovate the building in which they meet, which was once the college president’s home.
Civic Ventures provides a portal through which active seniors can make a difference in society. While not necessarily related to a college or university, many of the Civic Ventures approaches can easily be applied to other programs.
The first challenge that institutions face is establishing a process to locate the individuals with the needed talents and willingness to participate; educate faculty and administrators about the potential use of this group; and make the match between needs and opportunities.
Most significantly, this relationship between the college or university and the community cannot be left to chance. It needs to be planned, communicated and perceived as an integral element in the mission of the institution. Fortunately, the costs involved are modest and the benefits will far outweigh the time, energy and the dollars required. Some key suggestions:
- The initial first step is establishing an office to facilitate the program. While, in time, it has the potential of bringing financial resources to the institution, the program should be located in the office of academic affairs and not under development. Avoid any hint of second class academic status in the initial design. It is vital that priorities be placed in three distinct areas: 1) the immediate and long term needs of the institution; 2) the intellectual needs of the volunteers; and 3) the future needs of the community.
- Provide some appropriate title (Fellows) with academic privileges such as access to library, research facilities and parking. While most volunteers would not expect to be paid for their services, some formal program of recognition and appreciation should be established.
- Draw up an initial list of potential recruits from distinguished prospective professionals in fields that are related to your institution’s curriculum, strengths and needs and to other fields that are of importance to the well-being of the community. It is important that this group be as diversified as possible and not dominated by any one profession or group.
- Get faculty, administrative and community involvement from the beginning. Establish a high quality advisory board with representatives from all three categories.
- Provide adequate space for meetings and for growth. The space can serve multiple purposes, but transitioning professionals require a “place” as a surrogate office where they can work, meet and network with colleagues, etc. Since parking will be essential, a location near but not necessarily on-campus is most important.
- Provide funding and staff for the initial year or two. If the group is successfully meeting the needs of its members it will become self-sufficient in a relatively short period of time.
- Create some simple, but formal, organizational structure through Bylaws that will give the group an identity, and related through the office of Academic Affairs. Normally the group itself will be involved in this process during the first year of organization.
This program, if developed with care, has the potential of generating far more benefits to the institution, the individual volunteers and to the community than is immediately apparent. For example, in addition to their instructionally related functions, such a group might serve as:
- Ambassadors of the school in the community (volunteers are more credible than paid employees).
- A core think-tank, with sub-groups, on a wide variety of issues, and commissioned by community groups for special studies and tasks.
- A source of potential research colleagues and collaborators for faculty.
- The resource bank for speakers, consultants, etc.
- The energy source and place from which professionals develop their own talents, form new professional relationships and spin off new enterprises.
- A special “advisory” group for senior institutional officers and sounding board for testing new ideas, evaluation and planning.
- A talent bank from which the community can draw pro bono professional services to benefit the non profit infrastructure and municipal government.
A Final Word of Caution
Working with talented and dedicated people is always challenging and rewarding for everyone involved. Therefore it is crucial in programs of this type that both the faculty members and resource persons keep their focus on the objectives of improving the quality of the academic experience for students, the wellbeing of the community and health of the institution. If this primary goal is not clearly articulated from the beginning, some some faculty and administrators may perceive this relationship as an attempt by experienced “outsiders” to take over the classroom or program. The potential for significant impact and a delightful personal experience for faculty, students, administrators and the resource persons is there. They key is to keep focusing on the mission of working together toward a common goal.
Merle F. Allshouse was director of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College from 1994-2002. He has been president of Bloomfield College, vice president of the University of Colorado Foundation, and a professor of philosophy and religion and associate academic dean at Dickinson College. He is a Fellow of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida. Robert M. Diamond is president of the National Academy for Academic Leadership and professor emeritus at Syracuse University. His publications include Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula. He has held joint administrative and faculty positions at Syracuse University, SUNY Fredonia, the University of Miami and San Jose State University.