Mandatory Retirement as Women's Issue

May 16, 2006

Mandatory retirement was once the norm in higher education -- and most of the academics who had emeritus status forced on them were male.

Today, mandatory retirement is far from the norm and is illegal for faculty and many other positions. But a significant number of colleges, using loopholes in federal age-discrimination law that apply to executives and top decision-making officials, still have mandatory retirement for presidents and other top administrators.

A panel at the University of Kentucky is now pushing to have that institution drop such a policy -- because of its impact on women. And a number of experts on women in higher education believe that the Kentucky panel has identified a barrier that deserves to be removed elsewhere in higher education.

A female dean recently turned 65 at Kentucky, hitting the university's mandatory retirement age for deans and more senior positions. She raised the issue with the President's Commission on Women, and that panel is now calling for the rule to be dropped -- not just to help the dean, but based on fairness.

"There's just no evidence that we stop thinking when we hit 65," said Dorothy Brockopp, chair of the commission and assistant dean of nursing at Kentucky. While Brockopp opposes age discrimination for men and women alike, she said that her commission's work led her to believe that the issue is particularly important for women.

Women are more likely than men to take time off during their careers because of family responsibilities, and colleges are starting to recognize this, and to adopt "family friendly" policies. But Brockopp said that such women shouldn't lose out later. Because women may be later to advance, "they reach administrative roles later and cannot do what they could do as administrators if they didn't have to face this ageist policy."

The commission's proposal is currently being reviewed by the Faculty Senate and administrators.

Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said that the general trend has been away from mandatory retirement. He said that he hasn't heard much previous discussion of the issues raised by the Kentucky women's panel, but that its arguments made a lot of sense.

Brantley said that colleges are increasingly seeking ways to let people have careers that include time more focused on family. "If the need to spend time away from the work place to deal with life issues is acknowledged at one stage of the career, it seems like you need flexibility to acknowledge the impact later in the career," he said.

Claire Van Ummersen, vice president and director of the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education, said it was important for colleges to deal with this issue because of the particular challenges facing women seeking senior positions. "Many of the women who took time out to raise a family mature as scholars and administrators later, and they tend to be at the peak of their capabilities in their 50s and 60s and they want to work longer than 65," she said.

Mandatory retirement can also reinforce a bias such women face, Van Ummersen said. Based on searches she has seen and heard about, she thinks that a bias -- "perhaps unconscious" -- hurts women over 50 in ways that do not play out for men. She said that hiring committees tend to worry about the energy level of women and to imply that they are somehow too old -- even though such issues aren't raised about men of similar ages, and even despite the fact that women outlive men.

While Van Ummersen said it was understandable for search committees to "want a person coming in to be of very high energy," she said that "to stereotype women in that way is not helpful."

At Kentucky so far, the main objection to ending mandatory retirement has nothing to do with the reasons being put forth for changing the policy.

"It's quite amazing to me," said Brockopp. "The only reason I've been given from anyone for keeping mandatory retirement is that it is a rule that lets you get rid of people."

Faculty members and some administrators have "a great deal of cynicism" about how administrators are evaluated, she said, and so take comfort in the idea that there is some defined end point for their time in power. Brockopp said that everyone would be better off with a good evaluation system that dealt with problem administrators of any age.

"The attitude just makes absolutely no sense to me," she said. "You hire someone at 50 and say 'we don't like this person at all but it's OK because they'll go at 65.'"

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