College Leaders Discuss One Last Faculty Transition: Retirement

July 12, 2011

Presidents, provosts, and senior human-resource officers from more than 50 colleges gathered in Chicago on Monday to talk about how to support soon-to-retire faculty members and help them maintain meaningful connections to the institutions where they built their careers.

The conference, which runs through Tuesday and is sponsored by the American Council on Education, is part of a two-year project through which the council seeks to better understand how senior faculty confront decisions about leaving academe behind. For some professors preparing to retire is an emotionally charged issue that brings up fears of separation and isolation.

"They think, I am Professor So-and-So and I've been that for 30 years, and what happens when I retire?" said Claire Van Ummersen, project director and senior adviser in the council's Office of Institutional Initiatives. "Many of them need reassurance and guidance."

When it comes to encouraging and managing faculty retirements, colleges need some guidance, too, council officials said. The conference features panels on best practices for faculty-retirement transitions, the nuts and bolts of such transitions, and how institutions can avoid age-discrimination and tax issues when they structure faculty-retirement programs.

As the professoriate continues to age, Ms. Ummersen said, colleges are beginning to understand how critical it is to provide a support system for professors in the latter stages of their careers.

Steven G. Poskanzer, president of Carleton College, shared with attendees the popularity of his college's phased retirement plan, which has been in place since 1996. The program lets professors with 20 years of service teach a half load of courses and earn 70 percent of their salary for up to three years, while receiving benefits. Of 34 professors who retired between 2000 and 2010, two dozen of them opted for phased retirement. Of that group, 20 faculty members phased out their careers over the maximum amount of time allowed —three years. One of the program's drawbacks, however, is its cost, Mr. Poskanzer said.

But, "it's not all about the money," he added. "The other piece here is helping people work through what's next for them."

Low-cost ways of keeping professors connected to their former community include inviting them to collegewide social events or giving them office space or study carrels. However, at small, close-knit colleges like Carleton it becomes even more important to "make sure you are being fair and equitable as possible."

A Nervous Conversation

Since Congress ended mandatory retirement for tenured faculty in 1994, having a conversation about how to, and when to, leave academe behind isn't always easy. Administrators, particularly those in human resources, may genuinely want to help professors with retirement issues but are fearful of overstepping boundaries.

"They feel that they can't approach faculty about these issues because it could be seen as discrimination," Ms. Van Ummersen said. "Campuses are supportive of faculty but they're a little nervous about having the conversation."

The council released a report Tuesday that examines the legal issues that surround faculty retirement. The report urges institutions not to risk running afoul of age-discrimination laws by coercing faculty members to retire or refusing to hire retired professors as adjuncts. Colleges also shouldn't characterize senior faculty members as unproductive, says the report, which was written by Ann Franke, president of Wise Results LLC, a consulting company that helps colleges with employment, risk, policy, and training issues.

Meanwhile, offering retirement incentives, which have become increasingly popular with institutions as they try to free up cash during tight economic times, can trigger lawsuits from faculty if explanations about how they work aren't written clearly, the report said. Such buyout programs, along with retirement plans, also come with tax implications for professors that institutions need to consider.

For several months before the conference, the American Council on Education conducted on-campus interviews with senior leaders, faculty focus groups, and administrators involved with faculty retirement at nine colleges it selected. The council's team asked questions of them to determine the challenges that stem from the absence of mandatory retirement, what support professors want as they make moves to become a retiree, and what faculty-retirement strategies have worked well for both professors and institutions. Among the participating colleges were Carleton, Claremont McKenna College, the University of Virginia, and San Jose State University.

The next stages of the project will include a best-practices competition, to begin in early fall, in which 15 colleges will win $100,000 each to support programs to aid faculty-retirement transitions. Institutions may spend the money on new strategies that support faculty retirement, but they must have a proven program in place to be eligible for the prize money that will be awarded in March at the council's annual meeting, said Jean McLaughlin, senior program specialist in the council's initiatives office. The winning practices will be compiled into an online tool kit for other institutions.

"We spend a lot of time with junior faculty as we recruit them and work to retain them and prepare them for tenure," Ms. Ummersen said. "I think campuses are beginning to understand that providing that same kind of support for latter-stage faculty is just as important."