Dignity in Retirement Is Not Too Much to Ask

How can we reinvent faculty retirement to benefit all parties?

Joan Sorolla / Creative Commons

November 24, 2014

Laurie Fendrich’s November essay in The Chronicle on "The Forever Professors" touched a third rail of academic life that few have dared to approach publicly in the past: Do very senior professors have some sort of duty to retire?

A professor emeritus of art and art history at Hofstra University, who herself retired last year at age 66, Fendrich pulled no punches in her essay about the selfishness that she thinks lies behind many an academic’s decision to carry on working past 70: "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."

To her credit, Fendrich also notes that, for many academics, retirement is a frightening prospect with few of the benefits it provides other white-collar workers: Tenured professors are already living in their golden years with great autonomy and doing what they love. One of us (Perlmutter) has personal experience with the "I’ll never retire" school of thought: His father, to the day he died, at age 87, considered his retirement from faculty life a terrible mistake.

But rather than dwell on why (or if) some professors linger in their jobs too long, the three of us would like to focus here on what needs to happen in order to transform retirement into a more attractive option for more academics. How can we make it more dignified and, yes, productive, for people to take emeritus status?

If universities and faculty groups worked together to reinvent faculty retirement, everyone would benefit.

We start with these premises: America’s colleges and universities are facing serious crises in many areas, including budgets and funding models, leadership and governance. At the same time a vast pool of expertise that could help is either underutilized or ignored—that is, the legions of retired professors who still seek to contribute to their disciplines and institutions. The potential of that group is highlighted each year at conferences of the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education.

Attend one of its conferences and you will learn that research on faculty attitudes about retirement shows that many are conflicted about the decision to leave and struggle to envision a productive and meaningful worklife after retirement. As expected, money and health insurance are major issues in choosing to retire. But for the majority of older professors, their hesitation is due not to those financial factors but to less-tangible elements that can be difficult to articulate. They worry about losing their affiliation with a campus; their relationships with peers, students, and departments; and their intellectual purpose.

Consciously or subconsciously, they fear a loss of identity. Their trepidations about "no longer mattering" are not easily assuaged with a pamphlet, website, or one-stop visit with a staff counselor. It’s no surprise that in a 2010 TIAA-CREF faculty survey, nearly a third of the respondents said they expected to work until at least age 70, compared with about a quarter of American employees in all professions. That proportion would be lower if potential academic retirees were concerned only about health care and stock portfolios.

But retirement can also be seen as an opportunity or even a smart career move. David Heenan, in his recent book Leaving on Top: Graceful Exits for Leaders, argues that knowing when to go can prove to be the best way to continue a career. Indeed, given appropriate support and guidance, retiring professors can use a transition period to envision the "next phase" of their career rather than to become resigned to its death. Many institutions provide phased-retirement programs that allow faculty members to work progressively fewer hours as they near retirement. For some, the chapter after official retirement will include some mix of teaching, research, and mentoring as if they never retired. For others, it will be an opportunity to reinvent themselves.

One way to make retirement more attractive to professors is to recast it as the start of a new career. That, as Fendrich notes, is a central problem. Too many academics see retirement as the end of something to the exclusion of the beginning of something else.

Colleges that provide the tools to honor their retiring professors (and not just at one ceremony) and to ease their post-academic anxieties will reap long-lasting benefits, since retirees whose experiences were positive on a campus are much more likely to keep contributing to their institutions in meaningful ways. Those tools include phased retirement, retirement planning, and life-coaching services, all of which can help senior professors to make the choice to retire. Campuses that demonstrate how they value retired professors are more likely to create an environment that encourages retirement.

An invigorated retirement system brings financial advantages as well. At conferences of the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education, many retired professors make some variation of the comment, "The only people from the university who call me are development officers wanting to talk about a legacy bequest." Emeritus professors do indeed represent a huge potential donor pool, but anyone who is involved in fund raising will tell you that donors need to feel "respected and connected" before they give or pledge money. Donors who feel you care about them only as a revenue source tend to stop giving to you.

The connection between institution and retiree can also be improved by being physical. On many campuses, retired employees establish associations that are (typically) affiliated with the institution but operate independently. Usually begun as advocacy groups or social clubs, these organizations have matured, and the best ones have taken on more of a partnership role with their campus. They advocate for the creation of campus-based retiree centers and emeriti colleges—specifically to preserve the contact information of retired faculty and staff members, to serve their needs in planning for retirement and afterward, and to engage them in service to the institution.

Having a designated place where all retirees can meet—not just a departmental emeritus office—can also be an intellectual nexus.

One of the great flaws of our current university system is that we give lip service to multidisciplinary cooperation when, in fact, the demands of publication, grant-seeking, and tenure, and the ever-more-narrow specialization in disciplines, means the impediments to people working together are greater than ever. At the emeritus level, those handcuffs can be broken and blinders thrown off: Imagine a place where senior physicists, poets, sociologists, and biologists gather and "solve the world’s problems." The "emeritus club" can also include administrators helping new department chairs, and even new deans and presidents, by serving as confidential consultants on campus folkways, protocols, and procedures.

The good news is that there is a movement across the United States to acknowledge "encore" careers. is a nonprofit dedicated to helping retirees, typically over the age of 60, pursue second careers for social impact. The group’s Purpose Prize awards provide $100,000 grants to social innovators over the age of 60. The John Templeton Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies help finance the grants, billed as the "only large-scale investment in people over 60" in the country. Merely reading some of the stories from the grant winners is enough to inspire others to follow the second-career path.

The American Council on Education, with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, recently created a program to investigate faculty-retirement transitions and reward institutions innovative in that area. Fifteen colleges and universities were awarded $100,000 each for their best practices in policies and programs supporting faculty in preretirement, retirement, and postretirement. The goal: to change institutional culture and support a greatly expanded view of faculty retirement. The Sloan winners each contributed a chapter to a book published this year, Faculty Retirement: Best Practices for Navigating the Transition, that is full of good advice.

For example, in the preretirement phase, several of the Sloan winners offer comprehensive classes, web resources, and mentoring to senior professors puzzling over retirement planning. At the University of California at Davis, a four-week series of classes helps participants understand topics like the UC pension system, retiree health benefits, work/life transitions, and ways to stay involved with the campus. The series ends with a reception where participants can mingle with retired faculty. Meanwhile, in the retirement phase, several Sloan winners, including Princeton and Bentley Universities, offer phased programs that allow faculty members to gradually reduce their work schedule a few years.

So far we have focused on the utilitarian aspects of rethinking retirement—the practical good it can do. Obviously, Fendrich’s "Forever Professors" essay has generated instant and heated debate because the psycho-social-economic aspects of retirement are paramount. But we want to conclude by emphasizing the moral and ethical aspect of reforming retirement as well.

Despite many problems, our system of higher education continues to be a global model. Yet whenever we boast about a "great" university or college, we should always remember that that greatness—in teaching, research, service, and public engagement—was achieved in large part through the creativity, diligence, and hard work of faculty members. They are owed more than a handshake and medical benefits. They should be able to retire and yet still serve the cause of knowledge discovery, creation, and dissemination in ways that are productive and valued.

Sue Barnes is director of the UC Davis Retiree Center and president of the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education. Janette Brown is executive director of the USC Emeriti Center and Emeriti Center College at the University of Southern California, and executive director of the association. David D. Perlmutter is a professor and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University.