Hire a Geezer

Rob Weir argues that top colleges and universities can get better by getting grayer -- at least in selecting professors.

December 4, 2007

The days are shorter, there’s a nip in the air, and the malls are piping in the fa-la-la music. For higher-ed heads it can mean only one thing: Hiring season has started. Forget twinkling pines, Chanukah candles, Kwanzaa feasts, or even the aluminum pole of Festivus -- late fall and early winter is the time in which the dust is blown from moldering vitae, slumbering hiring committees are awakened, and deans are besieged by departmental Savonarolas predicting a looming apocalypse which can only be averted by additional faculty hiring. If all goes according to plan, instead of preparing holiday feasts, faculty members will busy themselves booking flights and hotel rooms for January conferences (which, for some odd reason, are more likely to be in Chicago or New York than someplace rational, like Miami or Honolulu). Cattle calls will ensue and, if the hiring committee members are like most, they will make their one nod to the holidays they just missed: They’ll be seduced by a shiny new bauble and purchase it for their departmental tree. Come the fall of 2008, the newly minted Ph.D.’s will arrive on campus ready to adorn the branches of academe.

I mention this because just about one year ago the popular media sounded alarmist notes about how “gray” the academy had become, especially at top research institutions and elite colleges. Predictable anecdotes were bandied about, sprinkled with a few carefully culled statistics -- apparently we should be alarmed that 2.1 percent of tenured profs are over 70 -- and the call for mandatory retirement policies was righteously asserted. (Odd how the phrase “age discrimination” was so astutely ignored.) Let me play Grinch and put forth a radically different idea: Research universities and elite colleges ought to get grayer, not younger, and for two compelling reasons: quality and cost.

Full disclosure: I am in my 50s and toiled in the second tier for over a decade before growing tired of the grind. I chucked a tenured post and took a leap-by-choice back to adjunct work that was more challenging and interesting than what I had been doing. I hold titles such as lecturer and visiting assistant professor by an act of will, so don’t cry for me Argentina. But I’ve also been at enough different types of institutions to know that the really good ones ought to be hiring people like me rather than bright, new baubles.

Let’s start with what should be (but seldom is) obvious: Over time academics worth their salt accumulate knowledge, have become experts in their fields -- and have the vitae to prove it -- and know how to teach. The latter point cannot be overemphasized. According to the Department of Education, 60 percent of students graduate from a different college or university than the one in which they first enrolled. Surprisingly, cost and homesickness are not cited as reasons for transferring as often as bad teaching, lousy advising, and desire for a more prestigious education. It does not take a mathematical genius to figure out that a failed assistant professor hire can cost his or her institution tens of thousands of dollars in lost tuition fees; at elite colleges that number quickly leaps into six figures, not to mention future losses related to alumni giving.

With due respect to the many wonderful and talented novice assistant professors, one is more likely to encounter shaky teaching among rookies. Higher education, unlike nearly all other levels of education, usually requires no formal training or practice teaching as a prerequisite for instructing undergraduates. The vast majority of newly minted Ph.D.’s have little classroom experience beyond serving as a teaching assistant and in some fields -- most notably the hard sciences -- many graduate students working on research grants have had no direct student contact at all.

Another reason why young professors are often so-so teachers is simple: They’re too busy producing the research necessary to secure tenure. Since they’re bright people they pick up -- often by trial and error -- the tricks of the teaching trade, but if they’re at a university or elite college, they’d better crank out papers, articles, and books or teaching evaluations are moot. And they’d better be on a handful of time-consuming campus committees to boot.

Like too many things in higher education, we’ve structured things backwards. Young folks can sharpen their attack knives for the next remark, but if the academy ran according to logic, nearly all new hires would begin their careers at colleges that place more emphasis on teaching than research. Freed from publish-or-perish pressures, they’d be able to craft their teaching skills more quickly and in the company of seasoned mentors. They’d also produce the research necessary to go to the next level in a less-pressured environment. In certain fields -- math and physics, for example -- one could make the case for letting young scholars work in the private sector before we even expect them to begin teaching. Although the data of researchers such as G.H. Hardy and Thomas Kuhn have been challenged, a significant percentage of important findings nonetheless occur before mathematicians or scientists hit 40. As for humanists, yes, it’s harder to give conference papers or get a book out if your teaching load is 4/4 instead of 2/3, but this is where we grizzled vets turn off our empathy. I published four books in years in which I shouldered loads of 4/4 and 5/5, and I’m not so vain as to believe I’m exceptional. The bottom line on this is simple: If a college wants good teaching and a distinguished faculty, go for those with a proven track record.

If that’s not persuasive, try the economic bottom line. According to the American Historical Association, in early 2007 the average starting salary for an assistant professor was just a tick over $48,000, whereas an associate professor begins at roughly ten thousand dollars more. Forget the ballyhooed star system; in routine hires it makes economic sense to hire older professors. How often have we seen this? A new hire -- roughly 30 years of age -- is made on the basis of his or her “cutting edge” research. Enough is published so that, approximately seven years later, that individual is tenured and promoted to associate professor. Academe being what it is, by then the research isn’t so “hot” any more, but that prof is still on the books for another 28 to 30 years.

Consider an alternative scenario. Let’s say the same college decides instead to hire a 55-year-old with tons of experience and publications, and that person agrees to come in at an associate professor’s salary. If we factor in annual raises of about 4 percent (generous these days) and assume that the individual with be made a full professor in five or six years, the college will invest roughly $800,000 in salary on said individual before he or she reaches retirement age. It would take 13 years for the 30-year-old to reach the same level of investment, but remember: They’re still aboard for quite awhile and you’ve got to keep compounding bumps for raises and promotions. For less money than the costs of a full career for a new Ph.D., an institution could hire two experienced associate profs sequentially, plus have money left over for several adjuncts.

So why do some deans tell hiring committees not to look at Ph.D.’s minted more than five years ago? Beats me! Logic would dictate that, metaphorically speaking, this holiday season hiring committees ought to stay away from the mall and head for the used bookstore.


Rob Weir is a reasonably well-adjusted freelance educator and writer living in western Massachusetts and making the rounds of local colleges. He plays hard to get, but would probably say "yes" to the right suitor.


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