To Encourage Faculty to Retire, Consider Offering Social and Emotional Support, Presidents Say

March 07, 2011

What keeps faculty members in their 60s and 70s from retiring isn't just finances, said several college leaders who spoke at a session during the American Council on Education conference here on Monday. Emotional and social considerations also come into play, and colleges that want to encourage more retirements should seek ways to offer faculty support in those areas.

Providing faculty members with office space, opportunities to continue working with students by teaching freshman seminars or other courses, and additional ways to keep tangible connections to their campuses, such as assisting with alumni relations, can go a long way in helping them prepare for the transition, panel members said.

"Retirement for many faculty members is social death. And if it isn't, they think it is," said Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia.

The issue of faculty retirement is a thorny one for colleges. There is no mandatory retirement age for faculty members, and as a result of the recent economic downturn, more faculty members are tending to put off retirement for at least a couple of years. With little turnover, colleges on tight budgets have less money to hire new faculty members. Some institutions have offered buyouts or other incentives to inspire more faculty members to start planning for retirement.

Universities that do offer attractive retirement incentives don't want to lose all of their senior faculty at once, however, and need to find a way to manage the process. ACE is running a project, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, that will identify best practices for encouraging and managing retirement at colleges.

At Monday's session, James H. Mullen Jr., president of Allegheny College, described his institution's search for a systematic way to deal with retirement and hiring issues. The college's new strategic plan calls for increased diversity of the faculty and for professors to do interdisciplinary work, and Allegheny must find ways to free up more money to hire new faculty members who will help it meet those goals, while being sensitive to the emotional aspects of retirement for its current employees. A quarter of Allegheny's faculty are age 60 or older.

In 2008, the college offered three options for professors considering retirement. They could take a transitional semester-long sabbatical at full pay, do a phased retirement with a reduced teaching load for two years at two-thirds salary, or retire and become a distinguished professor, coming back to teach at a rate higher than the one for adjuncts, Mr. Mullen said. Allegheny also gave retiring professors a space of their own on campus, creating an office suite for them in the new alumni building.

The introduction of the program coincided with the economy tanking, and it was not as popular as expected. The college anticipated about 11 faculty members would take advantage of the program in the first two years, but only three did. Mr. Mullen said he thinks more will consider it as the economy improves.

Other approaches described at the session included recall appointments, which allowed some retired professors at the University of California to come back and teach part time. Lawrence H. Pitts, provost of the system, said that 370 retired faculty members are now teaching at slightly less than half their former salaries.

At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Ms. Sullivan was provost before taking the top job at Virginia, the library worked with faculty members to create digital archives of their work, thereby helping them preserve their research legacy. Finding ways to improve the culture of retirement, so retirees don't feel cut off from the campus community, could help faculty members overcome their other concerns about retirement, including the more technical challenges of health-care and benefit payouts, she said.