The CHE: Retire Already!

By way of Undine, who blogs at”Not of General Interest,” I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article addresses academics retiring,  or, more precisely, not retiring early enough to make room for deserving up-and-comers. The whole piece is fairly obnoxious (“The Forever Professors: Academics who don’t retire are greedy, selfish, and bad for students”), but it brings up a couple of discussion-worthy points about teaching amidst the steady “kill the elderly” drumbeat.

The main premise of the article, which the author — herself a newly minted emerita — seems to espouse with suspiciously high enthusiasm, is that older academics owe it to others to retire: to the younglings waiting for tenure-track positions; to the poor departments whose budgets are drained by the high salaries of the oldies; to the apparently zombie-like students who crave exposure to the brains of young, fresh, energetic faculty.

No. No, older faculty do not owe their retirement to anyone. Why? First of all, if there’s one thing I learned in the US, it is that everyone looks out for themselves, and those who are concerned with societal benefits get called the s-word; older faculty should make their professional plans however it suits them, within the law. Secondly, for the most part those faculty who don’t want to retire are really energetic, sharp, and well-funded. I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80’s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output. I know a professor in his early 70’s whose recent graduate said that the professor was not just a very active septuagenarian, he was in fact the most active and energetic person of any age that the student had ever met. My PhD advisor is in his mid-70’s; he teaches, advises, travels, and publishes with enviable zeal, which I can only hope to have at his age.

Professors are blind to the incontrovertible fact that in the scheme of things, they are replaceable cogs who are forgotten the moment they are gone.” I don’t think this is true at all — the blindness — for anyone who has ever paid attention to what happens after people retire. Indeed, the second you are gone, nobody cares any more. Which is perhaps as it should be, and all to more reason not to choose to retire out of the goodness of your heart. Because no one will pat you on the back after you are gone.

“But ‘commitment to higher education’ covers some selfish pleasures. First, teaching is fun. It offers a sanctioned ‘low-level narcissism,’ as one friend put it, that’s hard to find anywhere else in life other than in show business.”

True, teaching is improv. Why exactly is it bad to find teaching, or improv, personally rewarding? There are plenty of narcissistic big mouths who enjoy the sound of their voice in corporate America and nobody begrudges them for bloviating. Why are academics supposed to teach for 100% altruistic reasons? Why would it be wrong to enjoy putting on a show? It sounds like great fun for everyone involved.

“Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

This is stupid and plainly incorrect. The fact that the kids in our classes are really young actually puts it clearly into perspective how old we are becoming. Parents of young kids everywhere will tell you the same thing. If anyone can delude themselves into thinking they’re beyond aging, it’s NOT the people constantly exposed to young humans. Or at least those among us with access to a mirror or the tiniest bit of self-awareness.

“Third, because teaching is part of a life of the mind, by teaching to 70 and beyond, professors feel they provide living proof, to anyone who might question them, that their minds remain sharp as tacks.”

And this is somehow supposed to be a reason to prevent them from teaching? It’s bad that they are not getting dementia, because we just can’t have sharp old people? For goodness sake.

“Finally, remaining within the confines of academe past 70 not only protects professors from the economic and professional uncertainties of life, but also substantially pumps up their wealth at the end of their careers.”

Seriously, the wealth of professors is the problem? Anyone in my field in industry will out-earn me within a couple of years of getting a PhD. Academics are middle class, and usually comfortably so, but it’s complete bull$hit to say that they are wealthy. And why is it that no one begrudges the wealth of dentists or physicians or lawyers, who all have graduate degrees and are all better paid than academics? Oh, yes, it’s the academics not doing anything useful again and, of course, tenure: nobody should be sheltered from the economic and professional uncertainties of life!!! How hypocritical that all this was written by a newly retired and presumably previously long-tenured professor .

The problem with teaching is that it offers an ongoing sense of redemption. In the real world, which you have now re-entered, if you muck up, there are consequences. In the university, you get a new semester to pretend nothing bad ever happened.”

Whoever wrote this appears to be staggeringly naive about university politics. Maybe you get a fresh crop of students to profess to each semester, but all your colleagues remain alongside you for several decades. If you think elephants have great memories, try tenured academics — they forget nothing. In these multidecade-long  professional relationships, the consequences of screwing up are real and serious. Sure, you may not get fired because of tenure, but you can get squeezed out of lab space, passed up for raises, ignored and disrespected in group meetings, so you will elect to leave or be miserable.

In my place of employment, plenty of people retire as soon as they can, move away from the cold, just go do something else. Those who don’t are generally very active in research, teaching, and service. We should leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

14 comments

  1. Hmmm. I have some absolutely fabulous colleagues who are in their late sixties. But I also have to say that the two colleagues who contribute the least to my program–to the point of hurting it–are only staying because they are so well paid they have no reason to retire. There are other things that could be done about that beyond forced retirement.

  2. I also have to say that the two colleagues who contribute the least to my program–to the point of hurting it–are only staying because they are so well paid they have no reason to retire.

    I guess every department has a few such specimens. In my experience, age has little to do with their lack of engagement or productivity. They are the failures of the tenure system who become a negative, destructive influence much before reaching retirement age; some even shortly after receiving tenure. I agree, there should be ways to get rid of them, without abolishing tenure or forcing retirement.

  3. Man, first day of classes in September is when I feel the oldest with the always young new crop of students arriving. I totally agree with you on that point.

    We have several older faculty who have less productive research labs, but who do a ton of service work and teach some of the larger classes. Thank god for them – those are not tasks that I envy in the least. I hope they never retire.

  4. Retirees are not immediately forgotten.

    We had to haul one faculty member back from retirement to be department chair—no one wanted the task, as we were all too busy with research and/or teaching, and the (former) dean had saddled the department with impossible space problems by not paying attention to anything about space, despite repeated please from our (former) department chair.

  5. Thanks for this cogent dissection of ridiculous argument. My favorite was

    “Second, the continual replenishment, each autumn, of fresh-faced 18-year-olds causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.”

    In fact,as anyone who has been doing this for awhile knows, the students get younger every year (and now that i am past 50 the Asst. Professors seems to be doing likewise)

  6. I have not thought this through, but what about an intermediate option: tenure only lasts to a certain age, say 70 or 75, so that helpful and productive faculty can keep going but there is a mechanism for retiring non-contributing senior faculty?

  7. @anonymous There is already a mechanism for removing non-functional faculty (even with tenure). It is not clear that terminating tenure at a specific age would have any beneficial effect, if the current mechanisms aren’t working somewhere. Locally, I see little evidence of non-functional faculty hanging on past age 65—if anything, the non-functional faculty take early retirement.

  8. Although I agree with just about everything you write, I’m not sure if I’m with you here. Do older faculty “owe” it to the rest of us to retire? I guess I would hope that older and wiser faculty would realize that staying long past 70 might mean that an up-and-coming postdoc would not get an opportunity to get a job that year. Hopefully, those faculty would appreciate that when they were eager young postdocs looking for a job, if no one had been in the habit of retiring back then, they themselves might not have gotten a job. You are right in that older faculty can be (and usually are) fabulously productive and valuable citizens of the department. But, at some point, shouldn’t we make room for others? I’m not a socialist, but I see really talented younger faculty right now desperately worried about getting grants, while faculty in their 70s and 80s who established their careers when science funding wasn’t so tight, continue to produce wonderful papers on the backs of aging postdocs who can’t get a job. I’ve already got tenure, so it’s fine for me if nobody retires, but I regret that a whole generation of scientists can’t get out of the training pit, while their elders get to do fun science and hang out with their friends at meetings for the fourth or fifth decade of their faculty career.

  9. @gasstationwithoutpumps what mechanism is that? If there is a mechanism then does the linked article have a point at all?

  10. While I agree with you generally, your anecdotes of highly active professors in their 70s and 80s could easily be refuted by anecdotes of old and not-so-old deadwoods everywhere. In whatever way you choose to cut, we cannot ignore the fact that deadwoods are preventing job opportunities for young ones. Untill they are weeded out — either by design or be default — such articles will continue to appear.

    And there is no point in comparing the wealth of professors close to retirement to what they would have earned outside academia. They are wealthy compared to general population, quite so when compared to young professors too. It is the economics of western world — young ones starting out in almost any profession can never hope to be as wealthy as the oldies are now when they reach that age.

  11. ” I know a top-notch female scientist in her 80′s who would put me and any of my readers to shame with her globe-trotting schedule, the size and funding of her group, the number and variability of collaborations, and the publication output.”

    Is that MD?

  12. Deadwood faculty infuriate me, but I agree that I don’t see them clustered at the high end of the age distribution. I too can think of a number of extremely productive faculty members in their 70s. They are generally good teachers too.

  13. I have had very mixed experiences with faculty at the older edge of the age distribution (let’s say 75+), sometimes all with the same person. Senior scientists can be great collaborators, filled with knowledge and love for their field. And having been in academia for decades, they can cut through some bullshit. However, sometimes they decide that some of the “bullshit” they want to avoid is, say, providing any guidance or encouragement to their advisees. In other cases, that breadth of knowledge and love of the field crystallizes into certainty that they are right, and anyone who disagrees with them is stupid. Now, both of these can happen with junior people – but I think senior professors, especially when they are productive in other ways, are given more leeway in this sort of bad behavior. This isn’t an argument for early retirement, but it is an argument that if you want to work until you are 85, you should be able to fulfill all of your responsibilities – including the ones that aren’t necessarily spelled out.

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