In Search of a Professor's Legacy

Timothy Cook for The Chronicle

March 18, 2012

On November 8, 2011, my father, Howard Victor Perlmutter, an emeritus professor of management in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, died at age 86 following complications from a fall and a brain injury.

A panegyric on the topic of his career would have much to cite. He retired a full professor at one of the world's top-rated programs in his discipline. He published widely and prominently for more than half a century. One of his essays is still required reading at business schools. Some of the concepts and terms he coined are now proverbial in the literature. His theories proved fruitful in the real world, as evidenced by his many consulting assignments for governments, nonprofits, and corporations. Former students testified to his kindness and encouragement of them, and to how, as one put it, "I owe much of what I am today to Howie." Colleagues waxed eloquent on his "spellbinding" mastery of classroom, workshop, and seminar, which earned him the nickname "The Pearl."

In short, by any measure he enjoyed a successful career in academe—any measure, that is, but his own. Since his retirement in 1993, my father had been working on one last major project: a book he hoped would be his summa, his legacy. The topic was as ambitious as anyone could imagine: the survival of the species, the fate of global civilization.

He never finished that task. I now possess boxes of his notes and hundreds of data files but nothing like a manuscript. Moreover, the tension in the last chapter in our relationship was that his focus became my frustration. I wanted him to pay attention to matters that were vital to me: his and my mother's health, finances, and living arrangements. He wanted to talk about climate change, the possible entropy of civilization itself, and the nature of good and evil. He gloried in seeking new knowledge and immersing himself in current affairs. I fretted about the books (12,000 in all), magazines, and news­papers (he subscribed to over a dozen print publications) that made their home an obstacle course and a firetrap. Even when my parents finally moved into assisted living, the book project was a chasm between us.

Since his death, I have learned that his counter-ire with me was even deeper and more pained than I knew at the time: He believed that his only child didn't believe in him.

Was our impasse inevitable and unsolvable?

During his final decade, my father rebuffed my attempts to direct his assessment of his legacy toward satisfaction at his numerous documented achievements in the triptych of academia—research, teaching, service. I had the evidence in hand to tell him he had been an excellent scholar and teacher. He acknowledged it but did not seem to esteem it.

I also wished my father could have valued more highly his behavioral legacy. Academics often joke that our profession is one in which people who would be unemployable in work environments less tolerant of eccentricity can find refuge. That is a positive quality in many instances. On the other hand, just like in any workplace, there are among us difficult, even malicious, types, and the power relationships of the university (tenured, nontenured, tenure-track faculty, graduate and undergraduate students) often protect bullies and boors.

My father, however, was by every declaration I've heard a collegial fellow. Not once growing up did I ever hear him make a negative statement about a colleague or student. I'm sure that is not because he felt everyone was wonderful and virtuous, but because he did not see reason for negativity. Any advice he gave me about getting along with colleagues was always toward the positive.

I think another legacy that my father could have valued was that he was an evangelist for the idea of learning and civilization. We live in an era of superspecialization in academic tracks. We pressure young faculty members to become the leading experts in narrow subfields. My father was part of a generation for which wider learning was still considered to be applicable to particular intellectual quests. He was a professor of management, but his Ph.D. was in psychology, and his baccalaureate was in engineering.

He and my mother were both passionately devoted to the classics of Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilization. Those 12,000 books, which became such a concern to me near the end of his life, were an inspiration to him throughout his career and a privilege for me to be exposed to during my formative years. Whether he was talking about international business practice or research methods in the social sciences, he joyfully brought Aeschylus, Seneca, and Confucius into the conversation. His erudition spoke of the relevance of the humanities to all of life and learning. I wish that spirit were wider-spread in academia today.

I won't go on any further, because a true tribute to my father would take too much space.

But I think the issue of intellectual life after retire­ment is one that goes beyond our individual family circumstances. The end of mandatory retirement has been a blessing to teacher-scholars in higher education who want to continue their work past some artificial expiration date. As I have argued in these pages, such faculty members can be icebergs, performing vital but often invisible services to their fields and institutions. On the other hand, the policy's controversies—occasional "dead wood" situations, a frustratingly dammed-up job market for junior faculty, and so on—are also well known. One of the less-discussed dilemmas that have been created on campuses is that, because no one wants to appear to practice, or even be accused of, age discrimination, we wait for people to bring up retirement on their own, we broadcast "retirement options" generally, or we focus on uncontroversial aspects like financial forecasting.

No surprise that colleagues of mine here at Iowa who research retirement planning by faculty note that often the decision is prompted not by intellectual rumination, ferment, or even acceptance, but by much more prosaic happenstance, like a health scare or a stock-market boomlet.

Professors, however, are not just boxes to be checked in actuarial tables. We need intellectual counseling or engagement for people in the final campus years, letting them decide how to come to terms with what they want to define as their legacy.

In my father's case, he told me that most of his own mentors or peers were dead, or that he was no longer in regular contact with them. I personally failed him as a long-distance intellectual partner, and not just because I was focusing on his day-to-day survival. I held a hard-to-suppress belief that the project he had placed all his hopes in was unachievable—too big, too wide-ranging for someone with declining memory. My skepticism leaked through ... but more than that, I was, after all, his child. To paraphrase Mark Twain, when I was a teenager I readily told my father he was misguided in many things (like, say, my Friday-night curfew); in my 40s, I found it impossible to be a helpful critic of my father's ideas or even an adequate editor of his prose.

So I wonder, as the professoriate ages, can we as a profession, and within institutions, put as much effort into a proper ending of a full-time career as we rightly put into the development of young scholars at the beginning of their academic journeys?

Would that mean there were formal mechanisms on campuses to counsel senior scholars not just on whether they want to keep their parking spaces but also on how they can help achieve that capstone of their career that they really covet, or even talk them out of one that cannot—for love, effort, or money—be achieved. I envision that just as there are people and places to go to negotiate retirement packages, project the financials, and review health-care options, there could be a campus office of "intellectual renewal and continuation." Perhaps it would be staffed with retired faculty members who have volunteered to coach prospective members of their ranks and to help administrators.

Among the questions to ask would be, "How can we help you achieve your continuing intellectual goals?" For some faculty members, getting a desk at the emeritus office or continuing to teach occasionally their signature class may be enough. Others might have ideas that require research support as part of the retirement package. Still others may need delicate and nuanced practical counseling on what post­retirement projects are sustainable and feasible.

In the end, my father was the captain of his intellectual destiny. I'm not sure anyone, least of all I, would have been able to steer him into a serene port of satisfaction in his successes and persuade him to give up on his final dream. Furthermore, some relatives who knew him well have contended that he was buoyed by the quest itself. I find it revealing that his favorite poem—the one we read at his funeral—was "Ithaka," by Constantine Cavafy, which exhorts that "As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a long one / full of adventure, full of discovery." By this logic, the fact that my father never reached the final destination of publication was irrelevant.

I don't agree—or perhaps I can't agree—but I won't claim certainty. I do know that all of us making decisions about retirement need to be encouraged, enabled, and supported to think through our intellectual transition as much as our physical and fiscal ones.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle, and his book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.