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The Academy at Hopkins

James VanRensselaer/

Recent data suggest that baby boomer professors largely won’t retire at or even around 65. That’s concerning to administrators who value their institutional knowledge but also want to make room for newer faculty with fresh ideas -- and lower salaries.

While some professors cite financial concerns as their reasons for postponing retirement, greater numbers cite intellectual concerns – more specifically, falling off a kind of intellectual cliff after a lifetime engaged in ideas, often collaboratively. That makes encouraging these professors to retire more complicated than offering buyouts or other purely financial incentives.

In one study, for example, 60 percent of faculty surveyed said they both expected and hoped to work past the traditional retirement age. In another study of baby boomer faculty, 89 percent of those who planned on delaying retirement for professional reasons said they wanted to stay busy and productive. At the same time, university presidents put mandating the retirement of older, tenured faculty -- who since 1994 have had no forced retirement age -- at the top of their institutional reform wish lists.

But what if professors didn’t have to choose between retirement and staying engaged?

A growing trend in higher education – the emeritus college – is an intellectual bridge to retirement for a growing number of professors. And while there’s no data yet to show that they’re making a real difference in retirement rates, the proliferation of emeritus colleges suggests administrators have deemed them a good return on investment.

Designed as more erudite twins of traditional  socially oriented retirement organizations, emeritus colleges already are well-established at some institutions across the country. Other continue to pop up. There are currently between six and eight, according to the Association for Retirement Organizations in Higher Education (AROHE). Most have been established since 2001.

Emeritus colleges are attractive to a growing number of institutions for their potential to make more meaningful the honorary but often hollow rank of "emeritus" professor, and offer a "renegotiated" path to retirement to faculty in general, said Roger Baldwin, a professor of higher, adult and lifelong education at Michigan State University who has studied such colleges. (Although some colleges limit their membership to professors designated as "emeritus" by their institutions, others do not, and welcome all retired faculty.)

Such colleges have a "narrower mission" than other retired faculty organizations, Baldwin said. "Instead of sponsoring tours or museums and trips abroad and golf tournaments, their primary focus is on providing opportunities for people to have shared intellectual achievements through lectures and continuing education opportunities, or serving as guest lecturers and occasionally continuing to teach."

Sue Barnes, president of AROHE and director of the University of California at Davis's Retiree Center, with a separate but related Emeriti Assocation that functions like an emeritus college, said that some faculty aren't interested in such an organization. But for many others, who "flounder around" after retirement or put it off due to fears of "losing intellectual stimulation and contact with colleagues both on campus and around the world," they're valuable.

Many offer physical space on campus for their members to meet or do research -- in some cases permanent offices for those who want them. They host regular symposiums and conferences featuring emeritus or active faculty, or outside speakers. Emeritus colleges often serve as a speaker pool for community requests, and collaborate with college or university programs or committees.

Some colleges also offer modest research stipends or paid teaching opportunities for emeritus faculty. At least one has a journal in which members publish original writing, art or research.

And yes, there are also social opportunities. But they come second.

"We didn't want to be known as the social club -- we are not that -- and there are plenty of those," said John Bugge, emeritus professor of English and chair of the executive committee of Emory University Emeritus College, which he helped found in 2001. It features twice-monthly colloquiums on subjects as varied as radiology and poetry, in addition other seminars. A weekly "evidence in research" lunch group will being meeting next semester.

"Essentially, [we imagined] there'd be a place where one could count on some collegial, intellectual exchange with like-minded people who enjoy the same kinds of things," Bugge said. But Emory's Emeritus College faculty escape the "silo-ization" that happens among active professors. In contrast to his active faculty days, Bugge now counts retired medical and other faculty from a variety of disciplines as friends -- and colleagues. There are about 25-35 core members.

Bugge said the college is what one makes of it, but given his level of involvement, he's more than maintained his intellectual "mooring."

Alleen Nilsen, professor emeritus of English education at Arizona State University, and editor of its Emeritus College's Emeritus Voices biannual journal, said the same.

Although she and her husband, also an emeritus professor at Arizona State, "rolled their eyes" about the college before their retirement two years ago, Nilsen said it's now a dynamic intellectual and social force in their lives. The organization, created in 2005, also has a voting member in the university's Academic Senate, office space and computers in which faculty can work; annual symposiums for members to present papers, and other, regular opportunities for intellectual engagement -- including the journal.

"We never have just coffees or something," said Nilsen. "We're much more academic than the Retirees Association."

Because emeritus colleges are relatively new, there’s no data to show that they are effective in getting faculty to retire, an advocates of emeritus colleges say that a major obstacle to their membership growth is that active faculty don't know much about them. But their growth nationwide shows that colleges and universities have decided that they’re a good investment, Baldwin said. Another sign of their value to institutions is that all the colleges he's studied escaped the budget cuts of the mid-2000s.

Annual budgets are about $140,000, depending on the size of the organization and other factors, and cover a small administrative staff and program costs. Some colleges charge dues, not more than about $50 a year.

Advocates say the most successful colleges are funded through the provost's office, and don't have to rely on fund-raising to survive.

"Faculty then do not perceive the center or association important in the eyes of the president, provost or chancellor, and you're not going to get them to retire, I feel, if you don't value [these organizations]," said Janette Brown, AROHE officer and executive director of the University of Southern California's Emeriti Center and Emeriti Center College.

She elaborated via e-mail: "When an Emeriti Center or Emeriti College is under the umbrella of human resources, benefits, alumni, or development, this indicates a non-academic focus. To faculty, these units are less important than academic units. There is more prestige involved when a center reports to the 'academic side of the house.' There is also more power or 'clout' from the academic side."

Office space, or even better, a dedicated building, further communicates to faculty the value of the college to the institution, Brown said. Ideally, such buildings should be close to parking areas and offer wheelchair and other accommodations for an aging faculty.

Johns Hopkins University could be the latest institution to debut an academically focused option for retirees. The Academy at Hopkins deviates somewhat from the college model in that it requires (and funds) some research from its small faculty (about nine retired, distinguished arts and science professors), who maintain close ties with their home departments. But it was founded last year largely for the same reasons, said Katherine Newman, dean of Johns Hopkins's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

"It was created to address the most significant barrier to retirement for our faculty which is generally not financial, but revolves around the desire for engagement, meaningful intellectual relationships with their colleagues, a physical presence, and the capacity to support research," Newman said in an e-mail interview.

She continued: "What we hope this will do is minimize the difference between what academics do when they retire and what they do beforehand and that by drawing those worlds together, enable faculty to blast past the barriers that make them reluctant to retire at whatever age they feel they are ready to step away from full time teaching, advising, and service."

Although the sample size is small, given Krieger's relatively small number of professors, Newman said the Academy already appears to contributing to an "uptick" in faculty retirements at or before 70 -- the "normative" age at Johns Hopkins.

That's because "there is another, very familiar, and appealing setting that is joined at the hip with the one they know so well to be part of."

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