Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Forever Professors: Academics Who Don’t Retire Are Greedy, Selfish, and Bad For Students

RetireChronicle of Higher Education:  The Forever Professors: Academics Who Don’t Retire Are Greedy, Selfish, and Bad For Students, by Laurie Fendrich (Hofstra):

The 1994 law ending mandatory retirement at age 70 for university professors substantially mitigated the problem of age discrimination within universities. But out of this law a vexing new problem has emerged—a graying—yea, whitening—professoriate. The law, which allows tenured faculty members to teach as long as they want—well past 70, or until they’re carried out of the classroom on a gurney—means professors are increasingly delaying retirement past age 70 or even choosing not to retire at all. ...

Professors approaching 70 who are still enamored with hanging out with students and colleagues, or even fretting about money, have an ethical obligation to step back and think seriously about quitting. If they do remain on the job, they should at least openly acknowledge they’re doing it mostly for themselves. ...

The average age for all tenured professors nationwide is now approaching 55 and creeping upward; the number of professors 65 and older more than doubled between 2000 and 2011. In spite of those numbers, according to a Fidelity Investments study conducted about a year ago, three-quarters of professors between 49 and 67 say they will either delay retirement past age 65 or—gasp!—never retire at all. They ignore, or are oblivious to, the larger implications for their students, their departments, and their colleges. ...

The inconvenient truth is that faculty who delay retirement harm students, who in most cases would benefit from being taught by someone younger than 70, even younger than 65. The salient point is not that younger professors are better pedagogues (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), but that they are more likely to be current in their fields and to bring that currency into their teaching.

Septuagenarian faculty members also cost colleges more than younger faculty—in the form of higher salaries, higher health-care costs, and higher employer-matched retirement contributions. Even if these costs pale in comparison to paying for bloated administrations, it’s wrong to pretend they don’t matter.

Worst of all, their presence stifles change. I’m not talking about mindless change for change’s sake, but the kind of change necessary to keep an institution thriving. A healthy university consists of departments with a balanced mix of new hires (full of energy, ambition, and fresh ideas), middle-aged faculty members at the height of their productivity, and older faculty with wisdom and a deep understanding of the evolving mission of their departments and universities. Disrupt that balance, and the foundation of an institution’s strength is undermined.

On average, graduate students earn their Ph.D.’s at the age of 34, and those landing tenure-track jobs tend to do so in their mid-to-late 30s. Young faculty members aspiring to full-time tenure-track jobs as well as newly minted doctorate holders have a right to be worried, if not resentful, as they watch older faculty clinging to jobs, blocking their chance of entering what remains of the ever-diminishing pool of full-time academic jobs. By delaying retirement, older faculty members, in effect, tell the younger generation of wannabe professors to table their aspirations to teach full time, or maybe even to give them up entirely.

Old professors who refuse to retire hobble an institution’s ability to control its academic priorities. ...

It is not my place to judge, individually, my colleagues and friends who are choosing to teach past 70. I know they have their reasons, almost all of which seem necessary to them. But that doesn’t prevent me from judging the way older professors, as a group, are crippling university faculties. Imagine a department of 15 full-time faculty members, five of whom are full professors over 65. If those five delay retirement until they are 73 and the department can’t expand, they block new hires for the next eight years. They also dampen the prospects for promotion of faculty members at the associate level, as no dean wants a department overloaded with full professors. Those older full professors also cow junior faculty into an even more "to get along, go along" mentality than the hazing the tenure process already creates.  ...

[O]lder faculty, by hogging an unfair share of the budget devoted to faculty salaries, exemplify the tragedy playing out in the larger social and economic arenas of all industrialized nations, where older members of a society, compared with younger groups, now possess a disproportionate share of a country’s wealth.

In short, American academe has created a continuing disaster by resting faculty retirement solely on the cornerstones of senior professors’ self-interest and self-assessment. Unless higher education comes up with a mechanism—or social consensus—that makes retiring by 70 the honorable and decent thing to do, everyone’s individual "right to work" past 70 will crush the young. Yes, continuing to be a full-time tenured professor past 70 ought to be possible, but it should be a rare privilege reserved only for the most productive and effective-in-the-classroom scholars, artists, and research scientists. ...

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. That is not a bad thing, but rather the heart of institutional strength.

Bridget Crawford (Pace), Is an Aging Faculty a "Continuing Disaster" for U.S. Law Schools?:

It's an interesting read, full of internal contradictions and provocative statements.  Professor Fendrich is writing about arts and science faculties generally, but it seems that many of her critiques would apply equally to law schools.

Just because I link to Professor Fendrich's piece or see the way she would apply her critique to law schools does not mean that I endorse her analysis wholeheartedly, somewhat, or at all.  I think she raises some interesting points about how the elimination of mandatory retirement has changed higher education.  The title to my post uses Professor Fendrich's language in order to invite conversation about law schools. The views expressed in Professor Fendrich's article are hers.

Legal Education | Permalink


It's easy to suspect that if tenured professors actually had to carry a demanding teaching load they'd be more than happy to retire and perhaps even retire early.

As is, the prestige they gain from remaining a full professor rather than a retired one more that compensates for the workload.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Nov 18, 2014 6:03:59 AM

There is a lot of focus these days on entry level hiring for practicing attorneys, but what is happening with academic hiring is just as interesting. There will probably only be 35-50 tenure track hires this year. There will be fewer next year, and fewer the following year. It will probably get down to under 20 new hires per year.

So far, most of the disgruntled voices have been coming from mid-Tier 1 grads that failed to get legal jobs after graduation. I bet in a couple years we can add to that all of the premier law grads (may w/Phd’s) that always fancied a life in academia but see that it is no longer a viable option. In even worse positions will be those that try and fail, and those that don’t have tenure and go down with a sinking ship.

A lot of ire will be directed toward incumbent faculty and administration, not only for refusing to leave, but for selfishly treating institutions as cash cows and thus creating an unsustainable financial condition.

Posted by: JM | Nov 18, 2014 8:43:28 AM

JM, I think 35-50 might be a little low based on the number of reported callbacks on the AALS tracking thread over at Prawfsblawg. It's certainly a down year though, and the second such year in a row.

Posted by: Former Editor | Nov 18, 2014 9:16:18 AM

I circulated this among our faculty and to others. One not that old colleague wrote "All businesses, as well as academia, need oldtimers around to make sure the newcomers don't keep re-inventing the wheel, or run the best of the institution into the ground by advancing unworkable ideas that are never fully thought through. Youngsters are interested in themselves; oldtimers don't need to be advancing their careers and can take an interest in ensuring the survival of an institution. The young can't appreciate that. Even we, who were young once, thought we were pretty special ... likely until we received some comeuppance from someone older and wiser.... And we were better for it."

Posted by: Ralph Brill | Nov 18, 2014 9:28:46 AM

Former Editor, I looked at that list and count about 52 callbacks. My guess is that some of these schools are just going through the motions with little intention to actually hire, and that others have decided not to hire based on preliminary 2015 application data.

Posted by: JM | Nov 18, 2014 11:36:28 AM

Given that most universities are trying to shrink LS faculties, the article's recommendation for more older faculty to retire may generate a perverse impact for the remaining LS faculty. In the LS context, each faculty retiree may free up funds but the universities are sweeping these savings rather than authorizing new hiring at the junior level. Thus, each retired faculty member leads to job compression for those faculty who remain, conferring more expansive teaching and administrative duties on the shrunken law faculty. It's not an unqualified good for the older law faculty to resign/retire, for the reasons Brill gave and this problem.

Posted by: LM | Nov 18, 2014 11:41:21 AM

JM, You may be right about schools just going through the motions with no intention of actually hiring, but I sure hope not. Dragging candidates through the whole AALS process to no purpose other than to look like they are in a position to hire would be pretty despicable. I'm not saying it isn't happening, mind you, just that it would be an awful thing to do to some of these young people. Regarding the numbers more generally, I'm also assuming, based on some of the comments, that a number of people are not reporting their callbacks this year for fear of being identified.

LM, There are those who would argue that some job compression at law schools, hopefully leading to reduced (or at least not increased) tuition, is not a bad thing.

Posted by: Former Editor | Nov 18, 2014 1:10:56 PM

I saw Bill Andrews present at 75 and he had more to say than most people half his age.

Posted by: michael livingston | Nov 18, 2014 1:52:58 PM

Being a law professor is a pretty cushy, low demand job. I had a professor that was 77. He did a terrible job teaching and had to quit due to health reasons. Make law professors have to teach double their current workload.

Posted by: Joel | Nov 18, 2014 4:13:15 PM

I thought being a professor was like being retired.

Posted by: anon | Nov 18, 2014 6:38:28 PM

I think there is a Coasian answer here. Many older faculty probably make enough to hire two beginners. If both beginners would offer a modest annuity (say 25% of their yearly salary) to the old guy, the old guy would give up his tenure and they could be hired. I am willing to broker these old person buy outs for only 6% of the old guy's salary.

Posted by: Jeff Harrison | Nov 18, 2014 7:06:24 PM

My law school had a tenured professor in his 90s that had been there for decades. I never had a course with him but my classmates unanimously agreed that, while they liked him personally, he was not fit to teach, and was certainly not doing anywhere near as good a job as an average professor half his age would have.

Posted by: Lonnie | Nov 19, 2014 9:51:39 AM