Older Professors: Fewer, and Better, Than You Think

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle

November 14, 2010

A frequent reader of The Chronicle might conclude that our universities are haunted by the specter of a campus clogged with geriatric professors waving canes in one hand and tattered lecture notes in the other. There seems to be a widespread assumption that junior faculty are productive and engaged, and senior faculty are nonproductive and disengaged. We—those of us 50 and above—are criticized for consuming excessive salaries, held responsible for the alarming rise in the costs of health insurance, viewed as dull and obsolete, and condemned for blocking the careers of more dynamic, and younger, faculty.

The dire implications of an aging faculty preoccupy a lot of academic pundits. A recent essay in The Chronicle Review argued that "retirement is central to the renewal of the American university" and went on to urge us to "make a timely retirement alluring" by inspiring faculty to "envision their retirement." More pointedly, the economist Paul Romer told Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz, authors of the 2009 book From Poverty to Prosperity, "If we are not careful, we could let ... things like tenure and hierarchical structures and peer review slowly morph over time so that the old guys control more and more of what's going on and the young people have a harder and harder time doing something really different, and that would be a bad thing for these processes of growth and change."

In a recent San Jose Mercury News article on "Stanford's graying faculty," Larry Summers is quoted as having said that an aging faculty "is one of the profound problems facing the American research university. ... It defies belief that the best way to advance creative thought, to educate the young, or to choose the next generation of faculty members is to have a tenured faculty with more people over 70 than under 40." And Stanford's provost lamented, "If too many older scholars prevent the younger generation's advancement, bright students may not go into academia. ... We really narrow down to a tiny trickle the amount of new people—the new geophysicists, the new economists, or the new civil and environmental engineers."

I disagree.

First of all, eliminating mandatory retirement has not resulted in a geriatric faculty. An extensive analysis of the impact of retirement policies on North Carolina's research universities in the 1990s concluded that late retirements are more than offset by early retirements, the mean age of retirement has not increased, and few faculty members are 65 or older. Further, the 2008 "National Study of Postsecondary Faculty" showed that there has been no rise nationally in the number of professors 65 and older—the proportion has held steady at about 4 percent since the 1990s. Stanford appears to be an exception, with 10 percent of its faculty 65 and over.

What's more, the "aging" of the professoriate is not a result of faculty members' postponing retirement but reflects a scarcity of young faculty members. A 1997 survey found that today's "young" faculty members are, on average, 10 or more years older than were those hired in the 1970s and 80s. The more-recent hires postponed entering graduate school, finishing their doctoral degrees, and entering the academy for personal, professional, or financial reasons. And a variety of policies and practices are in place that further "age" the faculty and will continue to do so. Not the least of them are the long-term implications of recent hiring freezes.

But what I most want to take issue with is the assumption that older faculty members are nonproductive and disengaged. This view of the relationship between age and achievement is widely held and deeply entrenched. It owes a lot to an analysis back in the 1950s that charted the relationship between age and achievement in many domains, whether chess championships or creative contributions to German grand opera or publication in psychology or expertise in medical specialties like pathology and surgical technique. The consistent finding was that achievement peaks in the 30s—somewhat earlier in some domains, like chess; somewhat later in others, like medicine.

Recent analysis of the relationship between age and creativity, however, have found that it is "career" age, not chronological age, that determines research and productivity. Historically, individuals began their careers at about age 20 and invested in a 10-year period of apprenticeship and training, which led to a peak in productivity at about age 30. But if you enter a profession at the chronological age of 30, you'll hit your peak at age 40 and remain productive throughout your 50s and 60s.

Individual differences, of course, play a part in all this. A longitudinal study reported in 2008 in the Public Library of Science looked at the careers of 13,000 professors in Quebec, tallying publications and assessing their impact. The findings show that the proportion of "active" faculty members does decline with age, peaking in their 40s at about 65 percent and declining to about 50 percent for those in their 60s. However, the findings also revealed that those professors in the "active" category hit a peak rate of productivity in their 40s and sustained it through their 50s and 60s. Their best work came both early and late in their careers.

I would add one more thought: Aging ain't all bad. As pointed out by a recent survey of academic leadership, a modest 12 percent of tenured faculty members are 61 or older, but 49 percent of college presidents and chancellors are 61 or older. So, although general abilities may decline, expertise may continue to develop over long professional career. Indeed, analyses of the relationship between age and job performance across a wide range of professions have found it to be—zero.

While we do need to plant and fertilize a crop of young faculty members, we shouldn't just plow under the old. The key to sustaining and enhancing research engagement lies with taking the long view of research careers as extending well past gaining tenure. The age distribution of our faculties is shifting, in part reflecting global demographics and the "extension of childhood" and the compression of morbidity as we adjust to the prospect of longer lives.

So why do we value the young? Because they bring new ideas and new technologies to the academy—ones they have acquired during their recent period of training and apprenticeship under older mentors. But just as the academy must nurture a crop of young faculty members, it must also support and sustain the research engagement of its midcareer and senior faculty as well, rather than plowing us under.

Susan Kemper is a professor of psychology and a senior scientist in gerontology at the University of Kansas.