Monday, February 18, 2008

Deadwood : A Guest Essay

Last month I wrote about the phenomenon of deadwood tenured faculty at research universities -- that is, those (mostly senior) faculty who do not do much, if any, research or grad advising/teaching, and yet do not retire. Although some readers were offended by this post, others could relate to it, and one of my readers in the latter camp felt that I could have pursued this topic even further. I didn't feel like writing more about the topic myself, at least for now, so I invited this reader to write a guest essay and give his own perspective on the issue of deadwood/ageism. Also, co-blogging seems to be in these days. So, at least for today, FSP is not written by a short ranting blonde woman but by a distinguished senior male professor.

Anticipated FAQ

Q: Did you read the guest essay before agreeing to post it?
A: No. I agreed before reading it, though I was quite sure the essay would be well written and well reasoned.

Q: Does that mean you agree with everything in the guest essay?
A: Not necessarily.

Q: Are you saying that you are not a distinguished senior professor?
A: Yes.

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Deadwood, Ageism, and Academia

FSP has often shared her views about deadwood and has even more often been reprimanded for her unedulcorated opinion of some members of the old guard. I have a similar view on my own “senior” colleagues. I like many of them, but some are hanging on to active duty while having had no paper written, no grant funded, no doctoral student advised, and no new idea for many, many years. And yet my department can’t even discuss their possible retirement without flirting with illegality? Something is not right.


I just passed the mid-career hump and yet, I look around me and although in my fifties, I stand as one of the youngest professors on the faculty, due in part to hiring freezes in the 90s and also to a federal law that did away with mandatory retirement age on the basis of age discrimination. This law may have been a good thing, but its side effects are, in my view, detrimental to academia. For example, the very subject of retirement has become taboo, and I don’t know about your department, but in mine, retirement is something that we are not allowed to discuss openly at faculty meetings or any other venue. Retirement deals, infrequent as they are, are made in smoke-filled rooms and involve some cash, a phasing plan over several more years, or a combination of the two. What is the result of all this? A dramatic decrease in the rate of junior faculty hires. This effect should be offset to some degree by demographics, since the boomers are coming of retirement age as a wave, but the long-term collateral damage of the age discrimination law may haunt us for a long time.


I have spent my academic career in both the U.S. and in Europe. In Europe, professors are, in general, forced to retire around the age of 65, and they do, and the academic institution is, in general, better for it. Of course, a few of these European professors who think they still have a lot to offer come flocking to the US where their age is protected and they can collect both their European pension and their American salaries. But many professors in Europe, like in the US, are given emeritus status and a smaller office in their universities, and they are allowed, in some places, to apply for research funding and advise graduate students. They keep doing whatever they want and are typically a great source of knowledge and wisdom. It is very nice to have them around, knowing they are not preventing a junior faculty from being hired.


It is not clear how the law on age discrimination has affected U.S. universities. The potential impact of the law was discussed thoroughly in the literature before and shortly after it was passed in 1994, yet, by the end of the 90s, when the stock market bubble burst, the discussion shifted to the economics of retirement, some professors retiring early because their pension sky-rocketed, and other professors, who were victims of the market bust, staying on to reconstruct their assets. Since then, the economy has stagnated and the U.S. health care system is still defective, which does not encourage retirement.


I am not necessarily advocating the very inflexible European system for U.S. universities, but I think a target age for retirement is overall a good idea, and age 70, as it was before the law took effect, is a very reasonable goal. It gives people an objective, and therefore they can prepare for it ahead of time, psychologically and financially. Instead, the present situation is, in general, one of confusion. A perusal of the literature over the last 10 years on the subject shows that more questions are asked than answers given: When should I retire? Am I ready for retirement? How will I know I should retire? Well, if you are in a science department and you have not published anything, advised any doctoral student, or written any grant proposal in many years, whatever your age, you need to think about bailing out. If you are a very successful professor at age 70, then you can also retire and take full advantage of the emeritus status to get out of committee work and spend unlimited time in your lab, with the personal satisfaction that your retirement has opened not just a position for a young person but also new possibilities for academia.

16 comments:

Fernando Pereira said...

I'm a former science department chair at a major research university who managed research groups in industry before and is back in industry on leave from academia. Retirement is a solution for the problem of deadwood like amputation is a solution for a broken limb. I know many very productive professors in their 70s, and I have known deadwood in their 40s and 50s (not in my department, fortunately). The problem is not lack of a retirement deadline, the problem is that tenure and genteel traditions make it impossible to address effectively lack of productivity and incompetence, or to reward meaningfully those who excel. As for making active emeritus faculty welcome, what about making them welcome by paying them for their work?

Angry Professor said...

I am disturbed by deadwood who refuse to retire, but less so than by deadwood who haven't published, have no grants, refuse to retire, yet still insist on recruiting and mentoring graduate students.

For some reason, our department believes it is just as taboo to discuss not mentoring students with these professors as it is to discuss retirement. So we have a bolus of unemployable graduate students; they tend to hang around and take adjunct positions.

Blah. Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly. I intend to lay down my sword and shield around 65 or so, and try to enjoy my later years without committee meetings and grade appeals.

Vodalus said...

Good post and fantastic new word: unedulcorated.

edulcorate: (v) sweeten, dulcify; dulcorate (make sweeter in taste)

Feel free to delete this comment if someone else already tossed up a definition for us plebeians.

Anonymous said...

When you attribute lack of performance to age, you are being ageist. Since there are people who are active and those who are inactive at a range of ages, this is not about age but about non-performance. Relating it to age is wrong. There is a phenomenon in my field where famous professors retire at one university and are eagerly hired by another where they collect a pension and a salary concurrently. I also see inactive junior professors who can't earn tenure and go to less demanding jobs, but noone says it is because they are too young to work effectively. This attack on people who are older stinks. As someone who just earned tenure after an ugly fight, I am utterly demotivated and coasting this year. I suggest that those who supervise faculty look at the demotivating factors in their departments and perhaps structure rewards so that they encourage the kind of activity they find missing. When it doesn't matter what you do in your job, then why do it? That may be the situation for older faculty (in terms of years on the job, not years on this planet). The view that younger faculty automatically have more to contribute neglects the value that accumulates with decades of programmatic research that only begins to show results as one nears so-called retirement age. It sickens me to see that younger people do not value the perspective, history (in a dept) and wisdom of their older peers but think this is just a numbers game with energy the only valued commodity. This is one of the ugliest discussions I've seen at a website, because naked prejudice against older people is considered acceptable to express here (and younger people are relieved that they can do so without censure). Phooey.

Anonymous said...

I'm a faculty job applicant this year. I'm doing OK on the job market, but I see plenty of people who are not. A big reason is the lack of jobs. To those who complain that retirement talk is ageist - how do you think that these aging faculty remain productive? It is with the help of their young graduate students and postdocs. And just think - what is the probability today that a beginning grad student can go on to a faculty job at an R1 university? Just about zero.

I think that the system is very unfair at present towards young students. I'm sure that if undergrads really understood what the odds are of getting a faculty job, you would see many more of them avoiding grad school.

vodalus said...

FSP, could you PLEASE post a rough estimate of your age? It seems that most of the "ageist" accusations are based on a notion that you're some young gun. It's my impression that you are at least over 35 and probably over 40 (given that you are a senior professor).

If you aren't comfortable disclosing your age, then would you feel comfortable disclosing a rough estimate of how long you have been a senior professor? That would also be good information for analyzing just how "ageist" your opinions are.

Anonymous said...

In my dept, we have deadwood all the way from 40 to 80. Age is partly the problem, but how about the guy in his late 40s who has decided to dedicate a decade or two to his family? he teaches (the same class, over and over). That's it.
I'd be in favor of a system where, if you do not have an active research program and a group, you teach more, do more committee work, make yourself useful to the community. But showing up literally 5 hours a day, and having the same teaching and committee work of everybody else, well that's not fair.
As for older but active profs, it should be possible to think of a mixed system whereby if one has grants after retirement, one is rewarded. For example the agencies could let people take 1-3 months of salary, like they do with summer salary for the rest of us.
I do agree that some older folks are doing better than most of us. But we had soemone refusing to retire well in his 80s. He was teaching an intro chem class, and scaring off all the students! He was teaching with the same style people used in the fifties. There was nothing the chair could do to limit the damage....

Female Science Professor said...

I have seen from personal experience at several research universities that those who do not meet the minimum expectations of the job over a period of many years tend to be the older faculty. Of course there are younger faculty in this group as well. You can call me ageist if you wish, but I don't care what age someone is -- if they aren't doing the minimum expectations of the job, and haven't done so over a period of years, they are abusing the tenure system, whatever their age.

There should be enough flexibility in the system to allow for someone (of any age) to have some lower-activity years related to family issues, change in research direction, a gap in funding for a variety of reasons etc. My guest blogger and I have not suggested otherwise.

vodalus: I am in my 40's, but closer to 50 than 40. I've been a full professor for a while, but, although I'm not the most recently promoted, I am nevertheless the youngest full professor in my department. The average age of all faculty in my department is somewhere in the 50's.

Ms.PhD said...

I thought this was a great post.

I don't believe in discriminating against anyone based on demographics of any kind.

However, I do think that in some fields, there are generation gaps that have grown because of things like the policy mentioned here regarding retirement age colliding with things like hiring freezes.

I don't think anybody saw that coming. In other words, these policy decisions are usually made in a vacuum and meant to be temporary, with no thought about how to prevent the potential repercussions if they were to become permanent.

I've noticed this is a general trend in academia, and maybe it's worse because there isn't enough pressure, like there is in business, to keep up with the changing times?

I agree with fernando and all the others who said the problem is rewarding productivity and instituting (eek) some kind of accountability.

I also agree that there are deadwood of all ages.

In my field, the eldest professors often command the best resources to hide their deadwood-ness: in other words, they have more postdocs to write their grants than anybody else.

Just taking on students and postdocs does NOT constitute productivity. Just having them in your lab does NOT constitute mentoring.

There are lots of deadwood with full, productive labs. That's in spite of the deadwood professor, thank you very much.

I agree that these senior people should be used as repositories of history and experience of all sorts. The question is what's the best way to do that, without alienating whole new generations of potential scientists?

I agree with the people who say that undergrads should NOT consider grad school in the current climate, unless they really understand all the sacrifices and the complete lack of guarantee that research can be a viable career.

There really aren't enough jobs, and until something changes...

When ARE all those boomers really going to retire? No one can say for sure unless you estimate on the far end (probably safe to figure most of them won't live past 112 years old).

Andrea said...

Another factor that is not considered in this discussion is the time and money it takes to get to be a (senior) professor. I believe mandatory retirement is ageist and unacceptable. (To say that many older professors don't produce so all should be forced to retire is like saying many women leave the work force to have babies so none should be hired). But if you were to have a mandatory retirement, 65 or 70 would not be acceptbale. It takes so long and costs so much to earn the crednetials to become a professor that many don't start earning money and retirement benfits until they are in their 30s and will spend most if not all of thier work years, repaying student loans. Even if I wanted to retire at 70, I don't think I could afford it.

okham said...

I like the post, but it is admittedly a controversial and difficult issue. My institution has recently followed the lead of other universities in Canada, and done away with retirement age. The main reason was that mandating retirement at 65 (as it used to be) renders the institution less appealing, for recruiting purposes. There may be some validity to that claim, I have no idea.

Based on my personal experience, I can offer a few (semi-random) remarks:
1) Some senior faculty (colleagues and acquaintances of mine who are still active in research at different universities), told me that they would not mind retiring, but are unwilling to do it for fear of losing their laboratory or even office space, and with those their ability of continuing to do research. This may well be a real problem on many campuses, as space is getting increasingly limited everywhere. A department capable of providing some reasonable accommodation and keeping senior faculty engaged in departmental life, may have better success at convincing them to retire. I think my department have been doing a decent job at that. Space will become an issue soon, though, unfortunately.

2) I doubt if anyone would complain about "deadwood" if senior faculty with a declining or no research program consistently took on a greater share of service and teaching. My experience is that for the most part this does happen, but exceptions seem more common than I would have thought. I sense that those cases are the ones that generate resentment among junior faculty.

3) There is a society out there that already sees us as "a privileged caste", and to a large extent I think that they have a point. I doubt if professors lamenting having retire at 70 because it's "too early" would get much sympathy from workers in other professional areas who normally retire when they are told to, typically much earlier than at 70, after going through one or more layoffs throughout their careers and with far less generous benefit packages.

4) I have had my wife promise me that she'll make me retire at 65 at the latest, even if I am still productive. At that point I'll have worked at my profession for 31 years and that seems fair enough. The thought of being replace by someone 31 years younger, who has the same right that I had to have a career, is not that distasteful. Plus, by then I'll be making much more money out of blogging anyway :-)

Doctor Pion said...

Nice to see a second voice with the same song.

I'll repeat what I said in the other thread, with a slightly different twist: If the faculty at a major Uni who are not doing productive (grant funded, PhD students, published) research (regardless of age) had to teach a 3/3 or 4/4 load instead of a 1/1 load, retirement rates would increase. A lot.

Demographic distributions in 2-yr and 4-yr colleges are quite different than in R1 institutions. (AIP data for physics are quite detailed.) You don't see people with 40+ years teaching at a CC, but they are not unusual at an R1.

Guest Blogger said...

I am amazed at some of the reactions to this post. I grew up in Europe and this may be why I have, on average, a different view on social solidarity as opposed to individual comfort; I see that our Canadian colleague also recognizes that we belong to a very privileged group. I have a great career, one that fulfills my passion for science, allows me to get up every morning with a purpose, to travel all over the world and meet interesting people, to teach undergraduate and advise graduate students, and to have the ultimate satisfaction that many of my former students have done very well for themselves and for academia. Is it so outrageous to believe that young scientists, like my students, deserve to experience this as well? It is simple math: If I hold on to my position until I am 80 instead of 70, whether I consider myself on top of my field or not, I am eroding 10 years from a younger faculty career. On this issue, I’d rather be called ageist than egoistic.

I totally agree with the comments that professors should be evaluated
seriously all along their career (post-tenure review) and I could live with a system of merit evaluation for professors who want to remain in their position past 70 if they are active. To have no way, in general, to weed out mid-career deadwood is bad enough, but to allow totally unproductive professors, in the name of ageism, to retain university positions beyond 70 is absurd and foolish.

Anonymous said...

Here's a argument that I have not seen here yet, and which is meaningful to me. W

When a person takes any kind of job there are trade-offs. One can aim for an executive position and perhaps gain very substantial wealth. Alternatively, one can take the path of a professor with all of its risks, rewards, and options.

If someone has forsaken the gains of an executive career, suffered the risks of failure to get tenure or receipt of sub-par salaries, then one of the compensations is the option to dead-wood out if one so desires.

For some people, exercising this option may maximize their utility, and it is mostly self-serving demagoguery to say that they have no right to something that is indeed a right.

Anonymous said...

There is a another perspective to consider: How about the academic research associate with a PhD who cannot get further because of a poor publication record due to projects that did not work or bad advice from the advisor: here I am, busting my but for my advisor at $45,000 a year, in a department which is over 50% deadwood faculty who are inactive (have labs with nobody in them)who make well into six figs (I work in a basic research dept in a medical school).

Its just unfair to see these overpaid lazy butts do next to nothing.

Although I am not privy to the politics in our department, I suspect they are a hugs burden and really prevent the department from getting new highers that could get grants.

Quite frankly, I would like to see the Dept. Im in closed. The faculty with grants can find other depts to work in.

Anonymous said...

I earn roughly 50-75 % of ALL other faculty members in my department; all due to the recent
sequence of in-bred (PhD's from OUR program, including our dean)
department heads who don't have a clue what real research is. Our "graduate" program is a joke, standards are nonexistent; we give PhD's to people who couldn't complete a serious BS program. But my family has planted deep roots here and I cannot leave the area, especially in the current economic (defense cut-backs in my case) climate. I teach my classes, very well, go home and study and write papers. The University gets ZERO "research" overhead from my work, and the administration rewards me with ZERO "merit" raises. Am I dead wood? I earned tenure and I spend serious time maintaining my "fighting strength" for the day I have to, perhaps physically, confront the current crop of university administrators who are another species from me. They have no appreciation for discovery, science, or any activity other than money hoarding. I am in in excellent health and I will never give up or retire. I am committed to fight to the end. And my students are NOT "customers".