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.
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?
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.
6 years ago