Guiding faculty retirement in higher ed

Strategies for easing veteran professors into post-campus careers

A retired nursing professor traveled to India to compile a how-to book for the country’s nurses. A one-time professor of religion took up digital photography. A former drama school dean helped a local theater company stay afloat.

Janette Brown, assistant vice provost at the University of Southern California, has seen the phenomenon often: faculty members finding exciting new directions once they retire from their tenured professorships. “Their health improves, their energy improves, they’re just dead-on valuable contributors in different arenas,” she says.

But data suggests that faculty members are waiting longer to retire than they once did, with sometimes problematic implications for their institutions. That trend is encouraging colleges and universities to experiment with strategies—from financial incentives to life coaching—aimed at coaxing veteran professors into starting a new chapter.

“You have someone who loves what they’re doing,” says Paul Yakoboski, senior economist at the TIAA Institute, the financial services company’s research arm. “How do you get them to think about the other possibilities they’re not considering?”

Money isn’t everything

Many veteran faculty remain vibrant and productive, administrators stress. But, carefully and tactfully, they acknowledge concerns. Senior professors cost more in salaries and benefits, and research specialties honed decades ago may not match today’s student interests and career needs.

Technology and pedagogical techniques have evolved, leaving some tradition-minded teachers behind.

And when older faculty stay on the job indefinitely, they may prevent newer Ph.D.s—who are more likely to be female or members of racial and sexual minorities—from finding jobs.

“Having people stay on who typically are white and male is not helping efforts to move toward a more diverse faculty,” says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at USC.

Professors delay retirement for financial and nonfinancial reasons, say researchers and university administrators. Some surely worry they can’t afford to stop working, an anxiety the Great Recession exacerbated.

But five years ago, when Carole Goldberg became vice chancellor of UCLA, she discovered that 250 of the institution’s 1,800 ladder faculty were so senior that, under the state’s generous pension system, these tenured professors could earn virtually the same amount in retirement as on the job.

“Money wasn’t the main consideration,” says Goldberg, who recently left her administrative post to return to UCLA’s law school.

Instead, faculty fear less tangible losses. “Faculty work is like a vocation,” says Todd Benson, associate director of the Harvard-based Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. “Being faculty isn’t their job, it’s their identity.”

And professors worry about losing contact with institutions that have defined their professional and social lives.

“The people I’ve interviewed about this topic often use the same terminology,” says Roger Baldwin, a professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education, who researches academic retirement. “And that is: When you retire, you fall off a cliff. You just kind of disappear.”

Many professors simply love their work. At St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, personnel director Deborah Anawalt recalls a professor telling her, “If I didn’t teach here, I would have to go find people who want to talk to me about these books.”

Addressing anxieties

Because so many factors underlie a hesitation to retire, higher ed institutions need an array of strategies to persuade senior faculty to take the plunge. “It needs to be multifaceted,” says Linda Harber, vice president at George Mason University in Virginia. “I don’t think you can just try one thing and think one size will fit everybody.”

Institutions sometimes tackle financial anxieties through early retirement packages. In 2009, the University of Colorado, Boulder offered faculty members two years’ salary, paid over five years, in exchange for a promise not to take any CU employment, even the occasional class, for at least that same amount of time.

“The person needed to really go—not kind of go,” says E. Jill Pollock, a CU vice president at the time who is now with the University of Missouri System.

Thirty-one of 36 professors accepted the offer. But CU had an advantage many universities lack: State law permitted it to make its offer to specific individuals, rather than to everyone of a given age or seniority level. The broader early retirement incentives that many schools must offer can be “a blunt instrument,” potentially pruning productive scholars along with dead wood, TIAA’s Yakoboski says.

Institutions are also striving to make the retirement transition less abrupt—sometimes through phased arrangements that reduce a professor’s teaching load in the run-up to retirement—and less opaque.

“I kind of equate it to buying a used car,” says Michigan State’s Baldwin. “Right now, when it’s not particularly transparent, you always feel that if you were a better negotiator, you would be getting a better deal.”

When Goldberg took her administrative position at UCLA, few faculty were signing on to the existing Pathways to Retirement program, which allowed tenured faculty to negotiate a package of incentives in exchange for a promise to retire at a certain date. Those incentives might include a year or two of extra research support and reduced teaching.

To increase uptake, she hired a retired department chair to help colleagues negotiate pathway deals. In 2015-16, 68 tenured faculty signed retirement agreements, up from no more than 18 in prior years.

“Faculty are sometimes reluctant to retire because they think that they’re not being treated as favorably as other colleagues who are retiring,” Goldberg says. “And one of the things that this faculty retirement liaison can do is provide information and transparency about normative arrangements, so that faculty have greater trust in the process.”

Extending benefits

Increasingly, universities are also trying to portray retirement as a vital, exciting life stage. Some sponsor panel discussions featuring happy retirees.

At USC, Brown plans to turn such testimonials into online video vignettes. George Mason used grant money to get a staff member certified as a retirement transitions coach; she met one-on-one with potential retirees to help them structure their retirements.

“We don’t want someone to retire and then just sit in their house all day staring at a TV,” says Harber, the George Mason vice president.

Overcoming retirement reluctance also requires a culture change, many say: encouraging faculty members—and their institutions—to think of retirement as an evolution, not a termination, of the faculty-university relationship.

That may mean committing to call retirees back to teach courses, conduct research projects or mentor students and junior faculty. But it can also mean smaller gestures, both symbolic and practical: the right to keep a university email address, retain library privileges and park on campus.

George Mason offers retirees a lifetime pass to its fitness center and tickets to campus shows. UCLA lets retirees use the title of “research professor” when applying for grants or speaking slots at academic conferences. Sometimes emeritus professors are even allocated that most precious of campus commodities—office space.

Such efforts require a commitment from campus officials to provide the resources necessary to offer perks and keep programs afloat, many say. And as baby-boomer professors age, such programs are likely to become increasingly necessary.

“That’s what the aging of the population really means,” says Brian Kaskie, associate professor of health policy at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, who studies higher education’s response to the aging professoriate. “All this stuff we’ve never really had to deal with before—and guess what? It’s here now.”

Deborah Yaffe is a New Jersey-based writer.


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