Over the decade that I have spent in my home department, I have witnessed several faculty colleagues retire. A number retired in their 60’s or 70’s; they had been active in research and faculty governance till the very last day, but were forgotten soon thereafter and are hardly ever mentioned today. Their labs were given to others and the department life went on. Each such retirement reminds me that, no matter how much you give to your work, your work will take it all, scoff at you for not giving more, then turn on its heal and walk away without so much as a thank you.
Then there were a few who retired much younger, with 10 or more good professorial years remaining. Their academic stories are not happy.
There are people in the department for whom no one among the colleagues seems to care. Everyone considers them deadwood, inactive researchers, generally someone most wish they could get rid of. These people wield no power in the department political arena. In whispers, they are described to junior faculty as irrelevant, so the younglings would learn not to mind them either.
Among these tenured-but-disenfranchised academics, some are a real net drain on the department as they don’t do research, teaching, or service well at all, so it’s really hard to find any redeeming qualities. These extremes are very, very, VERY rare, and ironically show no interest in early retirement.
But most simply run low on external funds, while remaining good and engaged teachers. They often take on a heavy service load, doing laborious tasks that benefit the whole department. These people deserve more gratitude and respect than they are given.
One such colleague recently retired. My guess is that he’s no more than 55 years old. I never got to know him well, but he must have been a quality researcher once upon a time at least, or else he would not have gotten tenure. In recent years, I watched him try — and fail — to get some more meaty service and administrative roles; the writings on the wall was that the department had given up on him. At that point, his main flaw was that he did theoretical work for which there had never been a huge amount of funding available, the well had since run dry, and he hadn’t been able (or willing) to successfully switch fields to a more lucrative one. A few other “shinier” faculty were brought in from the outside into his area, so he slowly became wholly marginalized. Over the past couple of years I can’t say I ever saw him in faculty meetings. The department gave up on him, communicated it loudly and clearly, until he gave up on the department, too, and left.
I wish him well in whatever he does next.
It’s sobering to see what can happen in nominally harmonious departments. Sure, nobody quarrels, everything is very civilized and outwardly friendly. We just shut people out of the decision-making process, and take away their abilities to contribute or advance in ways that don’t involve external cash precisely because they don’t bring in enough external cash. No need to abolish tenure; we can’t formally fire them, but we are apparently very good at making them want to leave.