Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind
In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of drawing and painting at Hofstra University charged that anyone who holds on to a university appointment beyond age 65 is selfish and greedy. What upsets her most are senior professors who have no intention of retiring. The longer they hang on, she argues, the fewer opportunities there are for new junior faculty to be hired. Moreover, she asserts, senior faculty are staying on just because they can. (Federal law not only outlawed mandatory retirement in the academy, it made it impossible for university administrators to even inquire about the retirement plans of individual faculty members.)
There are so many wrong-headed elements to Professor Fendrich’s argument, I don’t know where to begin. First, she doesn’t say that faculty who are no longer effective should retire; she assumes that anyone over 65 (70 at most!) should quit; that anyone over 65 is no longer a capable teacher or scholar. That’s age discrimination at its worst. Second, she assumes that the departure of senior faculty will lead to the hiring of new full-time junior faculty, by their departments. Given the tendency of many colleges and universities to switch, whenever they can, to adjunct and part-time appointments, students have no guarantee that the departure of a senior faculty member will result in a new full time appointment. Thus, the department of all faculty members of 65 is likely to lead to the rapid loss of quality in academic programs. Third, it’s not clear who is going to mentor all the new junior faculty she assumes will be joining the university ranks. Anyone who thinks that excellent college instructors and researchers are born and not made, doesn’t know what they are talking about. Every department and every field needs a mix of senior and junior faculty to ensure the on-going development of a highly skilled professoriate.
This brings me to the program recently adopted by my university. When I reach 70, I can switch to part-time status, yet still remain a member of the tenured faculty. I can begin to receive my retirement benefits, but still receive a half-time salary. This does not require that I switch to emeritus status (which would basically strip me of my privileges and responsibilities). Emeritus faculty may be assigned a group office (so they visit the campus every day), but in most cases they do not play a part in hiring, promotion, admission, or continuing teaching their courses, supervising graduate students or serving as principal investigators on research grants and contracts. Under the new system I am talking about, senior faculty can continue to do all these things. By switching to a multi-year (renewable) contract, and reducing my draw on departmental resources, my department has the money it needs to hire a new junior faculty member (with the half of my salary that is released). While there is no guarantee this will happen — because the central administration may want to hold the “head count” constant — if there is a new hire, I will be on hand for several years (at least) to mentor the new hire, and perhaps teach together or jointly manage a research project.
There was a reason that mandatory retirement was forbidden in American universities in 1994. Too much experience and brain power were being arbitrarily jettisoned. Now, people like Laurie Fendrich want to go back to that system by arbitrarily shaming faculty over 65 into retiring early. I have no doubt that many 65 year old faculty members are no longer as productive or skilled as they once were. I hope anyone who falls in that category will decide to retire and make way for a new generation of college instructors. But, that should be decided on a case-by-case basis. I would also point out that there are younger faculty who are equally unproductive or incapable. I have no problem with a system of peer review that provides feedback to all faculty members every few years after they have been granted tenure. If, after several negative reviews, a faculty member who has been warned (and given the help required to re-establish their bona fides) is asked to reduce their paid time and revise their responsibilities, that would not be unreasonable. A fair, evidenced-based peer review process (such as we use to make promotion and tenure decisions) is fine. It is the arbitrary assumption that everyone over 65 is washed up, selfish or greedy that is unfair and repugnant.
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