Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Who benefits when you retire?

Walter A. Aue / Creative Commons

September 21, 2015

Question (from "Old Fart Humanist"): My colleagues, to my face, call me "the gray eminence," because they perceive me as influential (well, I’m very well known in our profession). Behind my back, they call me "the old fart" and whisper things like, "Why doesn’t he step aside and make room for younger minds?"

It’s unnerving. I walk into a room for a meeting, and conversation suddenly ceases. Only a few younger colleagues have enough conscience or good manners to look guilty. Others ignore me unless they want something, such as a journal connection, a spot on a panel, or a grant recommendation.

I’m in my mid-60s, in good health, and I have excellent hearing. (My colleagues assume I don’t hear their conspiracies. Young people are so self-absorbed.) My courses get very good enrollments, and my teaching evaluations are excellent. I’m not costing a huge amount of money, since we haven’t had faculty raises in five years. Should I feel guilty, though, and retire so that young blood can trickle in?

Answer: Well, you can wallow in guilt, which Ms. Mentor calls "the useless emotion." Or you can swaddle yourself in shame, which is what your younger colleagues want you to do. Indeed, in our brutish times, shame is often more powerful than guilt. But dueling cries of "You selfish codger!" and "You narcissistic whelp!" rarely lead to the serene compromises we always seek but rarely find in this vale of tears.

Ms. Mentor trusts that Old Fart is a rational man with detachment and objectivity, those famous academic virtues. He should not be swayed by hyena relatives or vulturous juniors. He should quit only when he wants to and has the cash.

Many professors retire because of burnout or ill health. Or they’re forced out when programs are cut back. Many venerable, accomplished academics are experts in subjects that campuses no longer want. Foreign languages are disappearing from American institutions — and there is already a shortage of high-school Latin teachers. No one knows how to say orare pro mortuis anymore.

The luckiest retirees leap to something new. "Ingrid," a self-styled meddler, is running for the state legislature, to "tell those dogs what the people really think." Retirees-by-choice may want to live and work in Chiang Mai, or finally marry their same-sex partner and honeymoon in Amsterdam. Some have opened cheese shops. "Chester" is writing a grisly mystery about an English professor who cannot abide the misuse of apostrophes.

Few, if any, professors retire out of altruism — martyring themselves to make way for the young. Old Fart’s critics may claim that if he’d just step aside, or die, someone bright, shiny, and filled with new ideas and theories would be hired for the tenure track post that OFH is hanging onto with his gnarled hands. There would be renewal! There would be bunnies, ducks, and Easter everywhere!

But Old Fart and his contemporaries know the truth. They won’t be replaced. Their hiring lines will disappear into some mysterious university budget hole. If anyone is hired at all in Old Fart’s humanities field, it will be two or three adjuncts — grossly underpaid temporaries — who will be allowed to teach only the lowest-level courses. The senior-level specialties that Old and his contemporaries taught will disappear.

Yes, it’s a matter of money and priorities. Colleges are building spiffy athletic facilities, with rock-climbing walls and state-of-the-art fitness equipment. Administrators are proliferating, and the rage for "assessment" guarantees a flock of jobs for bureaucrats — but not for scholars.

Academia also has its one percent: the head football coaches. There are 27 of them who each earn more than $3-million a year. The highest-paid coach — Nick Saban of the University of Alabama — earns more than $7-million a year while a tenured full professor in the humanities on the same campus earns $107,000. The average instructor makes $37,000.

If Nick Saban stepped aside, his university could hire 189 new instructors.

Ms. Mentor supposes there’s at least one retrospective lesson: Old Fart should have become a football coach instead of a humanities professor. But she also insists that anyone who goes into university teaching for the money is — well, deluded. Delusional.

But is it selfish and delusional to stay past the traditional retirement age (65) because you think what you’re doing is worthwhile?

Ms. Mentor says it is not. You are being a responsible academic citizen — especially if your subject matter is something you think an educated person ought to know. In the humanities, it’s unlikely you’ll be replaced by someone who has your particular expertise (call it "Etruscan pottery"). If you stay for another five years, five years’ worth of students can learn what you know — and maybe they will pass it on to others. They’ll recognize beauty in pottery, ancient civilization, and tenacity. What you know will not be lost. Yet.

If you’re in your last five years, Ms. Mentor hopes you will not fritter them away on silly administrative tasks. You can benefit greener colleagues by showing them how to say No ("No!"), or how not to be guilt-tripped ("Oh, I know I’m not the only one who can draft the next strategic plan").

You can tell greener colleagues the truth — that endless strategic planning means that nothing much will ever get done. It even says so in a Harvard Business Review article, "Stop Making Plans; Start Making Decisions," by Michael C. Mankins and Richard Steele.

Old Fart may want to suggest that "Stanley," an incessant whiner, be chosen to draft the newest strategic plan, write the assessment report, and then move on to the bylaw revision, the self-study, and the new initiative to …

These are all wheel-spinning activities. Any time you spend on them steals time away from sharing your unique knowledge. What are the things that only you can teach? And are you getting those things published, even in a blog, so that future generations will benefit?

Ms. Mentor worries about lost knowledge. She remembers hearing, years ago, about "Professor Holdout," an old, ailing professor in the Northwest who was refusing to retire until he got a promise, in writing — that he’d be replaced with a tenure-track faculty member. Ms. Mentor doesn’t know how, or if, he got his wish. She does know he died soon afterward. He never finished his major book.

Was he a hero? Or a martyr? He did make his choice, as Old Fart should, too.

"I can’t afford to retire, so I plan to drop dead in the classroom," another correspondent told Ms. Mentor.

Now that would be a memorable lesson.

Question: In fall semester, my students worship football but ignore my courses. Only the grade-grubbing pre-meds even show up for Friday classes. Should I go into wild frenzies of rage against American philistinism — or rejoice in the once-a-week Friday chance to teach a small, very eager group of brainy youngsters?

Answer: Rejoice.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor reminds her flock that October is Exploding Head Syndrome Month, a designation she created a century ago. You will feel pummeled by teaching, grading, meetings, paperwork, and students’ and colleagues’ needs. Since most academic conferences transpire in October or March, you may be stranded in decrepit hotels, left without luggage, or locked in an airplane with sneezing fellow passengers. At home, you’ll barely have time to pet your cat. Maybe you’ll get only mildly ill — enough to stay home without guilt.

Ms. Mentor urges you to ban the word "should" from your life. Choose instead "will" or "won’t," and make a point of deleting — or burning — your "To Do" list. Do not be a responsibility magnet. Let someone else fix things.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, identifying details are camouflaged, and anonymity is guaranteed. You are welcome to send Ms. Mentor your most head-throbbing "To Do" list, and she will immolate it for you. She lives to serve.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is