The Gray Wave

An onrush of aging professors will force colleges to find ways to shepherd faculty into retirement while keeping them part of the university community, experts say.
March 8, 2011

WASHINGTON -- College administrators will have to chart a tricky course as large numbers of professors are poised to retire over the next decade, but are not likely to leave willingly, a panel of experts said here Monday at a session at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education.

"What we're talking about is not well-discussed and not much talked about," said Lawrence Pitts, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of California system, who was a panelist at the session, "Supporting the Culminating Stages of Faculty Careers: What Presidents Need to Know."

"It's an opportunity as well as a loss," Pitts said, referring to the balancing act that administrators must carry out. On one hand, helping large numbers of faculty members to retire opens up slots to hire new faculty and reinvigorate an institution with fresh blood. It can also save money: an Inside Higher Ed survey of presidents found that those who lead doctoral, master's and baccalaureate institutions would (were it not for political consequences) favor mandating the retirement of older faculty members as a way to address financial challenges. At the same time, such groups as the American Association of University Professors have noted that slots that once were held by senior tenured faculty tend to be given to contingent faculty, and not to a fresh round of tenure-track professors.

But the departure of senior faculty can also represent the loss of accumulated years of institutional wisdom, Pitts added.

In many ways, the demographic trends affecting higher education are also occurring elsewhere, said Kathleen Christensen, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who moderated the panel. Baby boomers are aging and life expectancy is increasing, which means that more people nearing or already at retirement can be expected to live longer. While it is difficult to say exactly how many professors are in the cohort that is approaching retirement, it is likely large. More than a third of faculty and instructional staff members in higher education were 55 or older as of the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty in 2003, which is the last year such data were available. Due to the passage of time since that study, another 30 percent of the professoriate would now be between 53 and 62.

On top of these demographic trends is recent economic history. The beating that retirement portfolios have taken in recent years has persuaded some skittish workers to remain in the work force rather than retire.

But what distinguishes higher education in general and professors in particular is how they relate to their institutions, several speakers said. These relationships can run very deep, particularly at small liberal arts colleges, and they can make professors even more leery of leaving, said James H. Mullen, president of Allegheny College. "For so many of our faculty, their identity is wrapped up in the life of our institution," he said.

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, said she had seen a similar dynamic on her campus, where the college is the locus of the area's activity. The prospect of retiring can seem threatening to faculty members' sense of themselves, and many want more than anything to keep an office or lab space on campus after they retire.

"Retirement for faculty members is social death -- or, at least, they're afraid it will be," Sullivan said. She noted that few faculty members seem to prepare adequately for their retirement; many simply parked their pension contributions in the institution's default plan. "It's part of the heart of our issue," she said. "Denial."

While it is too soon to label a set of best practices, the session's speakers floated a range of ideas that they had tried on their campuses (Sloan and ACE are teaming up to do a more systemic review of methods that work). Many ideas seemed to involve encouraging a process for aging faculty members to think carefully about the next stage of their lives (a process that many said should begin far earlier than it typically does), and to help them get a firm grasp of their financial planning, as has been tried at the University of California at Los Angeles.

At Allegheny, where one-quarter of the 150 faculty members are over 60, both informal and formal arrangements have worked to varying degrees. Mullen said some retired faculty members excelled at working in other parts of the campus, particularly institutional advancement. Alumni seem to be very receptive to an appeal for money from their favorite professor, he said.

Allegheny also has tried more formal ways to ease faculty members into retirement. One allows faculty members between 58 and 62 to take a semester's sabbatical to help them make the transition to retirement. Another allows them to work, but in increasingly diminished workloads, while a third, called the "distinguished professors" program, gives faculty members the chance to retire but come back and teach classes at a rate of pay below what they used to earn, but higher than what a typical adjunct makes.

The University of California system has a similar program, said Pitts, which it calls "professor-recall." About 370 faculty members work as teachers or researchers in this capacity, which typically lasts for three years and pays up to 43 percent of the salary they once earned.

Sullivan said she had seen a program like this work when she was executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Texas System. Retired professors were brought back there to teach freshman seminars. Not only were the student evaluations incredibly high, but the faculty members opted to return their stipends to the university when they were finished. "Faculty wanted to be engaged and it wasn't about the money," she said.

And at the University of Michigan, where she was provost, librarians sought to create archives of retiring professors' papers, including scanned versions of their notes and unpublished papers. "For most faculty members, getting a gold watch is not important," Sullivan said, "but leaving a legacy is."


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