[Paleopsych] CHE: Advancing in Age
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Wed Jun 1 21:41:33 UTC 2005
Advancing in Age
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.6.3
As the number of old professors at one university increases, so do the
By PIPER FOGG
Amid the students scurrying to and from the library here at North
Carolina State University, a professor with a shock of white hair
shuffles along slowly. When a colleague a few feet away calls out to
him, the elderly man doesn't respond.
A few blocks away, a silver-haired botany professor who is recovering
from knee surgery rests her cane outside her office. In another
building, an old-timer in industrial engineering marvels at today's
technology, recalling the days when he relied on his trusty slide
Older professors have become a familiar sight on this campus. The
changing composition of the faculty here and at colleges around the
country shows that academe has come to a new age -- literally. That
means less room for younger faculty members. While newly minted
Ph.D.'s may silently curse older professors for sticking around and
holding onto the jobs, colleges themselves have no clear choices.
Older professors offer a wealth of scholarly contacts and depth of
experience. But colleges with low turnover may miss out on
cutting-edge knowledge and novel teaching methods. They may have a
less diverse faculty, outdated curricula, and professors who are
uncomfortable with the latest technology. Administrators also worry
that the number of older faculty members has grown out of proportion
to the faculty as a whole.
Some of the statistics are startling. In the 16-campus University of
North Carolina system, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track
faculty members age 50 or older jumped from about a third in 1984 to
more than half in 2001. In 1984 there were only two tenured faculty
members over the age of 69. By 2001 the system had 90 such professors.
Other colleges face a similar demographic shift. A decade ago, at the
University of Arizona, less than 17 percent of the tenured and
tenure-track faculty members were 60 or older. Now, almost one in four
professors is that old. At Wichita State University, 29 percent of the
faculty were 55 or older a decade ago, and 41 percent are that old
now. Nearly one out of 10 professors there is 65 or older. At private
colleges, experts say, the situation is compounded: The type of
pension plans that most private institutions offer tend to reward
professors for working longer.
While the national population is aging as a whole, factors specific to
academe magnify the trend. Ten years have passed since Congress ended
mandatory retirement, a policy that had allowed colleges to require
faculty members to retire at age 70. Many professors hired during the
great expansion of academe in the 1960s and 70s are now reaching their
golden years. And, because many people are living longer -- and need
financial resources to do so comfortably -- more and more professors
are delaying retirement, some of them indefinitely.
But colleges are not powerless to combat those trends. Ronald G.
Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics
at Cornell University and director of the Higher Education Research
Institute there, suggests using a carrot-and-stick approach. That
means using incentives to encourage people to retire. And making
retired faculty members who are no longer on the payroll feel involved
with their institutions by offering them office space or the chance to
advise students. He says that some colleges allow officials to approve
who can get retirement incentives on a case-by-case basis. That may
help them avoid losing star professors, whom administrators want to
keep around for their marquee value. Colleges can also take steps to
reinvigorate older professors who do want to continue to come to work.
And when that doesn't work, tactics like post-tenure review can
persuade underperformers to quietly retire.
On most weekdays a group of professors in the economics department at
North Carolina State gets together for lunch, and this Wednesday
during spring exams is no exception. Nine professors meet in the
department's windowless conference room. They unpack sandwiches and
carrot sticks, diet sodas and yogurt. At least half of the professors
are balding or graying. Many look like they are pushing 60, if not
The exception is the department's lone assistant professor, Denis
Pelletier, 32, who good-naturedly accepts his place as the
department's one member under 40. The department has 22 professors,
and about two-thirds of them are over 55, according to the
department's chairman, Douglas K. Pearce. Twenty are full professors,
generally between about 58 and 64, he says. All are men.
"There's a problem looming in the future, I think, if we don't begin
hiring young faculty," says Stephen E. Margolis, who stepped down in
June after seven years as chairman of the department. But with so few
junior professors in the department, he says, it's been difficult to
recruit other young people. "New Ph.D.'s we're trying to hire look
around and think, Well, who are going to be my colleagues? They look
for a community of people their age."
The recruiting process also puts some stress on Mr. Pelletier, who had
to serve on the search committee for a junior professor last year
despite the pressure of being on the tenure track himself. The
department did hire a new assistant professor -- its only woman -- who
will arrive this summer.
Mr. Pelletier, who came to North Carolina State two years ago after
receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Montreal, says the toughest
part of being the only young person in the department is having few
friends his age there. "I'd like to have a beer buddy," he says.
"Someone maybe on a Friday to unwind with."
During the daily lunches, he says, his colleagues often bring up the
subject of colonoscopies or talk about some provost from the 1970s.
"In 1976," says Mr. Pelletier, "I think I was potty-trained."
Having fresh talent, says Mr. Margolis, would bring in a steady flow
of new perspectives and techniques. It would also bring connections to
up-and-coming scholars from other institutions. "An academic
department doesn't do well in isolation," he says. What's more, the
older economics professors are "perhaps not as active as they were in
their early 40s and 50s."
There are benefits, though, to having so many experienced senior
professors. Mr. Margolis points out that they help with advising, and
that they have strong connections to alumni, which has aided fund
raising. They also have far-reaching institutional knowledge.
Edward W. Erickson, a 69-year-old economics professor, has taught at
North Carolina State for 40 years. He plans to retire next June
-- although, he says, he gets better at teaching every year. But when
asked to recount the last time he created and taught a course from
scratch, he takes a long pause. Finally, he responds: "1984." Mr.
Pelletier, in his first three semesters as an assistant professor, has
done the preparatory work required to teach three new courses.
Professors like Mr. Erickson say they have stayed so long in academe
because it is a great job. A colleague, Michael B. McElroy, says
teaching gives him satisfaction and identity in life. "I get
disoriented when I'm not teaching and I take summers off," says the
63-year-old associate professor. "I feel this loss of connection with
students." Mr. McElroy admits that he's not much of a researcher, and
instead teaches three courses a semester, the usual load for faculty
members who do not do research. He tried teaching a section of
introductory economics two years ago but found he lacked the patience
to explain definitions and do the constant drilling that the students
in an intro course need.
That is another complication with having so few junior professors:
It's harder to offer a full range of courses. Late in their careers,
many professors become increasingly specialized and sometimes eschew
the basic courses that departments have to offer. And some older
professors simply start slowing down.
While Mr. McElroy says he continues to put in a full day's work,
logging more than 40 hours a week, he is scaling back. "I want to open
up to other things," he says. This summer he will travel to Paris for
three weeks with his wife. He started French lessons in January, has
been studying French history, and reads Le Monde each day. Still, he
says of his job, "I like what I'm doing and plan to do it
The economics department is not the only one at North Carolina State
with a surfeit of older professors. Industrial engineering, too, has
more than a few graying faculty members, including a 78-year-old who
has taught at the university since 1967. Another engineering
professor, Richard H. Bernhard, 71, is about to begin his 48th year of
teaching. Mr. Bernhard walks with a slight limp, having had
hip-replacement surgery two years ago. But he exhibits the energy of
someone considerably younger. He credits his verve to the excitement
of working on a dynamic campus.
People are living longer, he says, because they feel useful. Mr.
Bernhard's CV is a testament to his own usefulness: He is a member of
the Faculty Senate and the executive committee of the College of
Engineering, campus delegate to the Faculty Assembly of the University
of North Carolina system, and chairman of the university's
parking-and-transportation committee (even though he walks to work
every day). He ran for chair of the Faculty Senate last year, losing
out to his friend Nina Strömgren Allen, a professor in the botany
department. She is 69.
Flexibility is one aspect of academe that keeps Mr. Bernhard on the
faculty. "You can work as much as you want or as little," he says. He
says he is also in no rush to leave Raleigh, where the weather is mild
most of the year. Like many college towns, Raleigh has a strong sense
of community and is brimming with culture. He also appreciates having
smart colleagues and a department chairman who, he says, values him.
"If you're appreciated, ... if you have a pleasant environment," Mr.
Bernhard says, "why the hell stop?"
Ms. Allen, the botanist who won the Faculty Senate chair election,
enjoys what she does but has different reasons for delaying
retirement. A mother of five, she started her academic career late and
took eight years out to raise her children. After her husband died,
she had to put all five through college on his pension. She keeps
working now because she needs the money. Ms. Allen's retirement fund,
half of which was invested in the stock market, took a nose dive
during the recent economic downturn, like those of many other
professors. Ms. Allen acknowledges that there are certain things she
can't do anymore -- "like walk," she says, half-jokingly. She uses a
cane after having surgery to replace one of her knees. But she says
she doesn't mind working.
"I'm not worn out," she says. "I still find it fascinating." It helps,
she says, to have a collegial department in which many of the
professors are women. And when boredom strikes, she says, there is
always a new subject to explore.
Younger professors can invigorate departments. Several years ago,
Christopher R. Gould, chairman of the physics department here, said
the faculty was getting along in age. But through seven retirements
and the creation of new faculty lines, the department has been able to
hire 15 faculty members.
The influx of young people has breathed new life into the department.
There are seven women on the 38-person faculty, and only two
professors over age 65, says Mr. Gould. A creative tension has
developed between the young faculty members and those who have been
here for years, he says. And having more women has encouraged a
stronger focus on diversity issues.
Even the curriculum has benefited. When some faculty members tried to
establish a new introductory physics program, Mr. Gould says, the
older professors were skeptical. So he offered it to the department's
newer faculty members, who jumped right on it. That helped him restaff
the entire introductory curriculum. "I'm not sure we could have pulled
that off without all these younger faculty," the chairman says.
While the economics department would love to hire a legion of junior
professors during the next few years, financial realities prevent
that. State revenue is down, and Ira R. Weiss, dean of North Carolina
State's College of Management, which houses the economics department,
has committed to giving the department just one new hire a year. "Is
the faculty happy with the commitment I've made?" he asks. "No." But
his hands are tied, he says, acknowledging that the longer the
department goes without hiring new faculty members, the harder
attracting top-quality people will become. There is a concern, he
concedes, that the department's reputation may be suffering.
At Northeastern University, where Mr. Weiss was dean of the business
school, he was able to offer buyouts to faculty members on a
case-by-case basis. He says he has not ruled that out at North
What to Do?
What can colleges do to avoid the problems posed by an age imbalance
in the faculty? Robert L. Clark, an economist at North Carolina State
who studies faculty demographics and retirement, has created models of
the faculty both at the university and in the 16-campus system.
For starters, he says, colleges should do similar research on their
own faculties. By creating models that track retirement rates, faculty
age, and changes in hiring trends, colleges would be able to study the
effects of different hiring and retirement scenarios and manipulate
the models with projected growth patterns to predict the future.
Mr. Clark is a proponent of "phased retirement," which provides
incentives for professors to move gradually away from full-time work.
In North Carolina State's program, for instance, professors give up
tenure in exchange for three years of half-pay and full benefits,
during which they have to work only half-time. Such policies not only
help colleges know when specific retirements will take place, but also
smooth faculty members' transition to retirement. Mr. Erickson, the
economics professor, is entering his second year of the program; he
calls it "practice retirement." Mr. Clark also advises institutions to
study various incentives to learn how each one would affect their
faculty. Only then can administrators be prepared for what's coming.
At the University of California at Berkeley retiring professors who
win the approval of their department, dean, and a vice provost can
become "professors of the graduate school." Such professors agree to
retire but are then reappointed for three years or more. They are not
paid a salary but can apply for grants, are often given laboratory or
office space, and sometimes advise graduate students. The program
helps officials hang on to professors they want to keep around, while
still encouraging retirement. Some of the university's star faculty
members have signed on, including Charles H. Townes, 89, a physicist
who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his role in the invention of the
Mr. Ehrenberg, of Cornell, agrees that phased retirement is an
effective strategy: "It allows people to try out doing other things,
and often ... they discover they like it." Colleges should also try to
make retirement look attractive, he says, by designing programs or
centers for emeritus professors, so they won't feel abandoned when
they stop working. And if retired professors are willing to teach a
course or two, all the better for the institution.
Sometimes, though, incentives are not enough. Mr. Ehrenberg suggests
that when departments require everyone to pull his or her weight
-- for instance, by not excusing older professors from teaching core
courses -- some would rather retire than keep up.
Eventually the bottleneck of older professors at North Carolina State
will give way. "If nothing else," says Mr. Bernhard, "people are just
going to die."
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