The Un-Retiring

What happens when a chair never moves on? A professor explores life in such a department.

March 7, 2006

And here he comes, this morning as every morning since I started teaching at this university, and many, many other mornings before. He is the most senior professor at the department. In his neat suit and tie, his carefully combed hair, shaved face, old leather suitcase, he arrives in the morning as if he was going to take part in a United Nations meeting.

But he isn’t. He is just going as far as his office, down the corridor. He opens the door, but not before looking around to see if any student is roaming the corridor. If there is no student, he just gets in and leaves the door open. If a student is in sight, my colleague, Dr. X, will drop his suitcase to the floor in front of his office, and walk straight to the student and establish what I have come to call “the ‘nice-to-see-you’ dance.”

The dance has variations, of course. If the student is unknown, and male,  a strong handshake starts and ends it, and in the middle thereare questions of whether this student needs something, and what can he do to help him, followed by long and complicated directions to classrooms or buildings. If the student is known, and male, the opening handshake is the preface to a chat that can vary from 2 to 10 minutes, about anything, including the student’s and his family’s welfare, his classes, his plans for graduation, the state of his oldest sister’s youngest child, and so on and so forth. All is crowned by another handshake, and a pat in the back. Dr. X then returns to his office and proceeds to open the door and enter. Unless, of course, another student comes by, in which case the dance starts all over again. He is indefatigable.

When the student is female, things are a bit different, with slight variations depending on the presence of other people. From thevantage point of my office, I have been “privileged” to see the development of the subtle ballet almost as if I was the proverbial “fly on the wall.” With the unknown female student, of any age, Dr. X starts with a slight bow, a handshake, and an immediate hand on her shoulder, and a slight leaning towards her. He asks the same things he asks the unknown male student, but things are slower now. The hand continues on her shoulder. When the student has asked her question and received the eager answer, Dr. X gives her a slight hug, shows her his office, and says that any question she may have in the future, she “can come right in,” and ask him. He will be glad to help. He is a helpful prof.

If the female student is known to him, or, worse, if she is a former student, Dr. X throws his suitcase on the floor and literally flies on toher, covering her both cheeks with kisses, while he exclaims how very happy he is to see her. I have seen him take the student by the hand to his office, to talk to her more leisurely. Isn’t he a slick one?

Anyone reading these descriptions might think that we’re ripe for a sexual harassment suit. I wondered about that myself when I firststarted working at this institution. However, looking at these exchanges from another angle, I think that our students will never think about sexual harassment.

Dr. X is an older man. He is as old as the students’ grandfathers. Dr. X has been in this university since, as we newer members of the department like to say, “the time of the dinosaurs.” As a matter of fact, some of us have even ventured to say that he was present at the groundbreaking ceremony, more than 100 years ago. His age, which we know is above 65, is a matter kept under five keys. But we know. Another faculty member is friends with somebody in Human Resources, and the exact date of birth was found out.

Our dear Dr. X, whose age is officially a secret, shows it in other ways, however. One of them is the fear of technology. He does not like computers, and only uses his to do e-mail and write a test or two. No one knows how he learned to use the e-mail, but the fact is that he does. However, he won’t budge at other intromissions from the 20th and 21st centuries: he will not use a VCR, or a DVD player, or any kind of projector for his classes. His horror of cell phones is legendary.

Are his classes any good? Is he an effective teacher? We, the junior faculty, have no way of knowing, because we, of course, don’t have access to any of his students’ evaluations. What we know is that some of those who studied with him and then took our classes, will have just the most basic idea of the subject that was supposedly studied in Dr. X’s class. This situation does not surprise the younger faculty, because Dr. X does not produce any scholarship, has published only some very minor pieces in magazines run by some of his buddies, only attends minor conferences in places where he has friends or old colleagues.

Even though he is the most senior member of the department, because he was hired in a time when expectations for tenure and promotion were quite different, he cannot serve as a mentor to any of the younger faculty. All he can do is brag about the many acquaintances and friends he has in several places. Interestingly enough, none of these acquaintances has ever come to the university, so we are never sure he really knows these people.

The trouble with Dr. X is that, besides everything else, he has been the Old Chair of the department for more than 20 years. By now, with the retirement of some other folks -- younger than him -- all the others who are in the department have never experienced it with any other Chair.  He reigns supreme and undisputed, surrounded by a coterie of work-studies and fragile-looking students. The not-so-fragile take courses with others in the department. Recently, at a party given to the graduating seniors, some students drank a little bit too much and a few of them said that they should be graduating on “Dr. X’s Studies,” because they only took classes with him. Dr. X, in the meantime, carried on a long-winded conversation with the mother of one of the graduating students and never heard the grumblings at the table next to his.

Meanwhile, the administration of the university keeps Dr. X.  in his position, and will keep him there, it seems, until the dawn of the next century. The reasons for his longevity in the face of incompetence seem mysterious, but maybe the simple fact that there is no senior review explains part of the mystery. The fact that he was the president’s drinking buddy when they were young may explain the rest. At general faculty meetings at our small university, our Chair walks around, freshly pressed suit and indefatigable smile always on, looking like he is a benefactor, a statesman of sorts. He is untouchable.

Meanwhile, the young faculty does not know what to do. We go through the motions of writing our yearly activity reports, which are sent both to the Chair and to the Dean. We sometimes wonder where they are filed. We are sure they are not read. The Chair only calls a faculty member in to talk to him in private when a student complains. This Chair never gave any of the younger ones any kind of encouragement, and does not ever mention anyone’s publications or other accomplishments. An older colleague, who had taken upon herself to provide some kind of guidance to the younger faculty, after a few years just gave up, when she found out that  the Chair was calling her “feminazi” whenever he had a chance, and was plotting with other older men in the university to oppose. her tenure vote. She had to personally go to speak to colleagues on campus to explain what her work consisted of, to guarantee she would have a chance to obtain tenure. It is still a “good old boy network” here, so the year before she was supposed to apply for tenure the older female faculty member applied elsewhere and left.

The chair gloated and still bashes her any chance he gets. But, as long as she remained here, to her face he was as pleasant as ever. We wonder if he will ever retire. We wonder why he won’t retire. We wonder whether he is even human. After more than 30 years teaching, it seems that he just doesn’t know how to do anything else.

But sometimes we have hope: some days, this last semester, he arrived on campus looking tired, sickly even. A colleague commented and asked if I thought that meant he might retire. It was around that time that we had a university party to which everyone took his or her spouse. I met the Chair’s wife for the first time, and then I understood something else about him. The woman, a lot younger than him, is extremely bossy, and ready to find fault. She spent the whole time as if floating in vinagre. One time when Dr. X was saying something, she blurted out some sharp comments about him, and even though deep inside some of us thought they were well-deserved, a little bit of pity was impossible to avoid. Isn’t he quite something?

Why would the man retire? In contrast to an obviously unhappy domestic situation, he has a comfortable niche at the university. He has a big office in an old, dignified building, and he has a secretary who takes care of all the unpleasant stuff he doesn’t want to deal with. And it is not for the money, because after so many years working, he could get full pension and benefits if he retired tomorrow. The truth is that, as long as he is a member of the university, he can get up in the morning and feel that he still has a place in the working world. There is nothing wrong with that, is there? He can dress up and leave the house. Besides, there is the added perk of surrounding himself with young student flesh, even if, as we younger faculty have discussed thoroughly
among ourselves, he does not really touch them maliciously, ever. Or is that just something we want to believe?

Finally, one last thing seems to be creeping into our consciousness. The longer the old Chair stays “at the helm” of our department, the more he refuses to consider retirement, the more used we get to just enjoying ourselves criticizing and making fun of him, the less we notice that we, ourselves, are getting to be “of a certain age.” Pretty soon, we’ll all be versions of Dr. X:  throw in a pound of an unhappy marriage, a dash of vanity, a spoonful of student flattery, and we, too, like him, will be un-retiring.

In the meantime, should we consider ourselves guilty of ageism? Should we forget that this professional is not working at the level demanded of younger colleagues? Or should we bow our heads in gratitude to the work he did in the past and just continue agreeing to carry on, to not see that, now, anything he doesn’t do falls on our shoulders, and that, in effect, we, the department members, are losing our nerve while the department loses more and more credibility in the eyes of other departments? Even though the average age of the faculty
in this university is fairly high, other departments have been more successful in convincing their old Chairs to step down and let younger colleagues take the position.

But our fears are based on the fact that it will not suffice to unseat Dr. X as chair. Once he is out of a position of power, he still has enough strings to pull to cause trouble for whoever takes the chairmanship. He has been in power, unchecked, unsupervised, un-reprimanded for too long; he is bound to try to continue chairing, moving strings from the shadows. But supposing he leaves the chairmanship and just concentrates on his teaching, how much longer can a new Chair continue accepting his attitudes towards students, his refusal to teach with the newer materials and techniques, his hot air scholarship? Should he get special treatment because he was once the Chair, or should he be judged by what he is doing in the present? Should we suggest that his place be made available for a better trained, younger professional?

Of course, we can wonder as much as we want. Dr. X will stay “on board” as long as he pleases, will do as little as he can get away with, and those of us who are getting tired of seeing his antics either have to get out or join in.


M. Douglas is the pseudonym of an associate professor at a university situated below the Mason-Dixon line.


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