• September 4, 2015

Economy Slows Colleges' Ability to Hire and Delays Retirements

Economy Slows Colleges' Ability to Hire and (Maybe) Retirements, Too 1

Susan Tusa for The Chronicle

Ronald Stockton, a political-science professor at the U. of Michigan at Dearborn, conducts research in a local cemetery: "I intend to keep teaching as long as I can. I can't imagine myself not in the classroom and working with students."

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close Economy Slows Colleges' Ability to Hire and (Maybe) Retirements, Too 1

Susan Tusa for The Chronicle

Ronald Stockton, a political-science professor at the U. of Michigan at Dearborn, conducts research in a local cemetery: "I intend to keep teaching as long as I can. I can't imagine myself not in the classroom and working with students."

Like many deans, William A. Schwab would like to hire more new faculty members. But with a hiring freeze in place at the University of Arkansas's main campus, where Mr. Schwab leads the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, his ability to hire full-time professors is limited, although the university's enrollment is growing.

Also complicating the hiring situation: Older faculty members are delaying retirement because the economic crisis took a bite out of their retirement portfolios. While a steady flow of retiring faculty members would free up money the college could use to hire new professors, "that's simply not happening," Mr. Schwab says. Nine percent of the college's 300 faculty members are 65 or older, and 5 percent are in their 70s and 80s.

"Until we start seeing turnover, we're limited in what we can do," he says.


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That crunch is something other colleges are feeling, too, says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. He calls the situation a "double whammy": At a time when colleges are facing budget reductions that force cutbacks on hiring, they are also seeing a slowdown in the retirements that would free up money to hire.

Speculation about waves of retirements has gone on for years, as the faculty members brought in to teach the baby boomers, and now the baby boomers themselves, hit their 60s. The American professoriate is aging. Six years ago, the last time the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty was completed by the Education Department, the average age for full-time professors was 49.6 (54 for tenured faculty members). In 1993, the average age was 48 (51.9 for tenured professors). Today it's not unusual for colleges to have faculty members teaching and working in their 70s, or even 80s. At Cornell, where Mr. Ehrenberg works, 86 members of its 1,605-person faculty, or 5 percent, are 70 or older—twice as many as 10 years before, according to university statistics. Some 177 faculty members, meanwhile, are between the ages of 65 and 69.

For certain, the decision to retire from a tenured position is a complex one that is not solely determined by money or the state of the economy. Many faculty members enjoy their teaching and research, and ever since mandatory retirement at age 70 for tenured professors was abolished in 1994, many see no reason to give up their work or university affiliation once they reach their 60s. In a TIAA-CREF faculty survey released last month, nearly one-third of those polled said that they expected to work until at least 70, compared with about a quarter of American employees in all fields. Of those who said they expected to retire after age 67, more than two-thirds chose personal preference, not financial necessity, as the main reason they planned to work later.

Evidence that the most recent economic downturn is having a noticeable effect on the retirements of older professors is still largely anecdotal. Not every college reports seeing a significant change in the age of retiring faculty members, but the issue is very much on the minds of administrators and individuals. Another TIAA-CREF survey, from last year, found that almost a quarter of faculty members ages 50 to 70 who were saving for retirement expected to retire later than they had planned, with an average delay of three years.

What does it mean if tenured professors are retiring later? People are living longer, and professors in their 60s and 70s may be doing the best work of their careers. Colleges don't want to lose those teachers and researchers at the top of their game. (Mr. Ehrenberg, for example, is a well-known, sought-after expert in higher education at age 64. He loves his work and teaching students, and says retirement would be "very, very hard.") And there's no guarantee that colleges will replace a retiring tenured professor with another tenure-track faculty member. In fact, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track jobs in the professoriate has continued to shrink over the last three decades. But colleges also need to bring in junior faculty members at the beginning of their careers. New professors bring fresh energy to a college, can rejuvenate a department, and may be doing work in the forefront of their fields, especially in rapidly changing areas.

And hiring new professors is one way colleges can improve the diversity of their faculty. Mr. Schwab, of Arkansas, points to his college's most recent group of new hires: 11 men and 10 women (which would have been an equal number of women and men, for the first time in the college's history, if one female candidate hadn't declined Arkansas's offer), one-third of whom are minority-group members. "Our goal as a college and university is to have a faculty and student body that reflects the diversity of society," he says.

Some universities have taken action to make retirement more attractive to those who might have been considering it before the downturn. Duke University, for example, created a central fund from which deans could borrow to add to the retirement packages of faculty members who may have been hesitant to leave because they lost some of their savings during the recession.

Since the downturn, the number of people retiring or leaving Duke for another institution has dropped by about half, says Peter Lange, Duke's provost. The university wanted to free up more money for hiring and take advantage of a tight job market in which competitors had slashed their hiring. Between 15 and 20 people took advantage of the added financial incentive, which requires them to retire by next June. Mr. Lange estimates that the program cost the university between $1.5- and $2-million; individual colleges will have five years to repay the central fund.

While Duke has slowed its hiring somewhat, it was able to run about 80 percent as many searches as it had in recent years. Another benefit, Mr. Lange says, has been that more faculty members have started conversations with their deans about retirement.

"Turnover is important for the constant renewal of your faculty," he says.

More colleges are looking at possible incentives to increase the number of people retiring, says Valerie Martin Conley, an associate professor of education at Ohio University who studies faculty-retirement trends. Not all have the money to offer early-retirement packages or incentives, such as allowing senior faculty members to work part time, and there aren't much data on such incentives that colleges can use to compare programs or adapt existing ones to their needs.


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Ralph W. Kuncl, provost of the University of Rochester, says there are ways to facilitate retirement that can be a win for both the individual and institution. He believes the best strategy is to provide access to free, impartial financial advice. He also believes institutions can offer phased retirement that allows retiring professors to remain involved in the life of the university rather than go away entirely, because money isn't the primary reason older faculty members stay on the job.

"Their entire identity is tied up in being a scholar," Mr. Kuncl says. "To go from 100 to zero is unthinkable."

Mr. Kuncl, who hasn't seen a noticeable change in retirement age at Rochester during the recession (the average age is 67), cautions that institutions considering retirement incentives need to treat senior faculty members as individuals, and with dignity. A sense that there is a set number of people a college wants to retire to hit financial or diversity goals can create a toxic environment, he says.

Ronald Stockton, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, says a bad economy isn't the main reason that professors like himself are still working. At 69, he's a productive researcher who just won a department award and loves teaching. He recently gave a lecture series on graveyards (a personal interest, in addition to his primary work on Middle East conflict and Arab-Americans) and led a three-hour tour of local cemeteries. He is now helping undergraduates create a guidebook to Muslim graveyards in the Detroit area, home to one of the oldest Arab-American communities.

"I intend to keep teaching as long as I can," Mr. Stockton says. " I can't imagine myself not in the classroom and working with students."

He believes universities should offer step-down retirement plans that would allow faculty members who wanted to keep teaching to stay on campus and teach part time, which would keep them in the classroom while freeing up part of their salaries to hire younger scholars. He made a proposal to that effect to his university several years ago when he was on his college's executive committee, he says, but it never went anywhere.

"The way you make it possible for people to leave is to find a way for people to stay," he says.

Not all universities are looking to hurry retirement of their faculty members. They believe age will take care of any bottlenecks in the coming decade or so, as the baby boomers grow older. Also, it can be expensive to replace them.

Jamshed Bharucha, provost at Tufts University, believes universities will see a substantial increase in the rate of retirements in the next 10 years, regardless of the state of the economy. He's been telling graduate students at Tufts to "hold tight."

But the wave of retirements, if it happens, could be a double-edged sword, Mr. Bharucha says. While it will be an opportunity to hire many new faculty members, Tufts doesn't yet have the up-to-date facilities that new faculty members in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math expect when they are hired. Tufts estimates the upgrades and renovations it will need to attract top candidates once the wave of retirements starts will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The university is planning to make the upgrades in stages.

Tufts has talked about offering retirement incentives (the medical school offered buyouts before the financial crisis hit), but Mr. Bharucha says the university is not looking to hurry people through retirement.

"It's something we talk about, but I don't feel the sense of urgency," he says. "It gives us time to put in place the kind of facilities and infrastructure we're going to need to replace those retiring faculty members."


1. esfreeman - July 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

I think part of the issue is that it's not clear that retirements will be replaced with tenure-track jobs. My department is losing the lines of people who retire -- to be replaced, my guess is, by grad student instructors and freeway fliers. I'm far from retirement age myself, but knowing that my position would turn into something exploitative would hardly be an incentive to go. When I and my cohort were first hired, I had at least a few colleagues who thought, good, now the department is growing and I'm not so necessary. True, they could afford to retire, but it was also part of how they thought about the institution's life beyond them.

2. 22100406 - July 27, 2010 at 11:09 am

In my experience, older faculty and staff who retired are quite often replaced by adjuncts and part-time staff. Admittedly it does get more instructors for the same amount of money. However, When you don't pay benefits and can hire at minimum price, is this actually to anyone's benefit? Please don't blame those of us who are not retiring for the problem. If you want top candidates - or even simply good solid faculty - you do have to pay for it. Getting rid of the experienced to hire inexperience is not the answer.

3. jeff1 - July 27, 2010 at 11:46 am

Faculty do work longer in their lives today than perhaps is the case in the past. That said we all have so many years on this planet and no matter how long colleagues wish to work, time is finite. I would tend to agree with Jamshed at Tufts . . . there is going to be a wave of retirements in the coming years given that many faculty where in a wave that suggests they will be retiring in the near term.

4. joyce8 - July 27, 2010 at 12:14 pm

I seriously doubt that creating "gradual retirement" options is an effective way to increase retirements - it may actually backfire if the partial compensation associated with these programs is significant. Moreover, given the newness of the current situation of no mandatory retirement, meaningful data are hard to come by, so it behooves everyone to think very carefully before accepting anecdote-supported assumptions.
Many older folks in "the real world," where mandatory retirement is also now illegal - but where tenure protections are absent - retire when the pleasure/pain balance shifts between trying to keep up a full workload versus enjoying a more leisurely pace. For better or worse, tenure makes it hard for administrators to tilt that pleasure/pain balance as aggressively as employers in the larger economy can (and do). Nonetheless, relentless teaching and service demands make retirement more attractive, even to tenured faculty. In contrast, a gradual retirement option enables a comfortable pace that may keep faculty in harness for extra decades.
A cheaper way to allow older scholars to hold on to their identity while freeing up salary funds is to provide office space (perhaps shared), library access, and the like. Limited-time-window buyouts can provide a sweetner and may well not need to be very large.
A productive and humane approach would also involve supporting a society-wide movement to help older workers transition into other lines of work, perhaps with entrepreneurial and pro bono components. The waste of resources, not to mention the inhumanity, inherent in a norm of going from full-time work to full retirement is staggering. However, the best way to tap the wisdom of older workers and facilitate smooth turnover is unlikely to be simply having workers keep running on the same old treadmill at a somewhat reduced pace.

5. csgirl - July 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm

I think people in every line of work are going to be working longer. It makes sense - we live longer these days. There is every liklihood that the Social Security retirement age is going to be raised, and many financial planners tell us to assume we will be working longer because our retirement savings won't last long enough otherwise. It isn't just academia that is being hit this way - every professional field is going to have a logjam of older workers hanging on. The alternative for many of these workers is not full retirement, but going to a Walmart greeter job.

6. tuxthepenguin - July 27, 2010 at 05:03 pm

The article seems to imply that there is something better about new faculty. The full professors in my department contribute a lot. They serve on graduate committees, even advisors to many students, teach important classes, do undesirable service, and publish. It is true that they make a little more than new hires, but comparing their contributions to the new hires, they are a much better deal.

I grow anxious with every retirement, knowing that means more service and advising for me. There's better than a 50% chance, for many reasons, that the new hire will never be tenured. It usually takes at least five years before a new hire does everything we need her to do.

Some faculty at retirement age are dead wood, but bumping up the teaching load, assigning less desirable classes, teaching times, and rooms, and requiring less desirable service pushes them out the door.

7. godot - July 27, 2010 at 05:11 pm

If older established professors are not going to retire then they have a responsibility to actively advocate for the expansion of the professoriate. Over the past three years I have not seen older tenured professors in any field speaking out in public for the further expansion (which mean hiring) of their departments. I don't want to use the word cowardice, but if you are going to stay then help those of use coming behind you before departments are empty wastelands.

8. kripp - July 27, 2010 at 05:30 pm

I think the big problem will be the sheer volume of new hires that many departments are facing, because of the demographic "bulge" that's nearing retirement. In my department, over half of the faculty are in their mid 60s. Other departments in the discipline are in the same demographic boat. There simply aren't enough PhDs being produced each year, at least of the same talent as those hired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to "replace" all these faculty in a short period (e.g., 3-5 years). (Yes, there are still too many PhDs produced relative to the number of positions, but not all PhDs graduate with the same level of talent, either in an absolute or relative sense.)

I predict that the richest universities will be able to start prefilling sooner, and they will be better positioned to "buy" who they want, albeit at a high price. Less well-positioned programs are going to have to hire PhDs who probably wouldn't have gotten positions at that program in the 1990s or 2000s. The unanticipated consequence will be greater inequality between program, and greater salary gaps between the "winning" and "losing" faculty in these contests.

9. 22235933 - July 27, 2010 at 10:23 pm

There's not going to be any need to hire Ph.D.'s to replace retiring faculty when more and more colleges shift towards online or distance learning using "facilitators" many of which might be outsourced to other countries. Adminstrators won't be able to resist the cost-savings and as a society we've already decided that "participation" is the same as "winning." So what difference will it make that your "education" was bought instead of "earned?"

Higher education is what the steel industry was in the 1970s. One might as well stamp "Made in Bangledesh" on our diplomas and letterhead.

10. bradwick - July 28, 2010 at 07:43 am

Don't think anyone mentioned 'the biggy' -- health coverage. My mother (kindergarten teacher) & my father-in-law (vo-tech auto repair teacher) both retired 25 years ago at about age 58 when their school districts offered retirement health insurance benefits in a special, limited-time retirement offer. My husband (special education teacher) & I (accounting professor) will move to full-time volunteer work -- once we know we each have sufficient retirement health benefits. As to retirement funds? Hubby & I already scaled our expectations WAY back, downsized to a smaller & cheaper home -- which we did 5 years ago -- before the current slowed economy hit. In my university department? Average age is 57 & if I figure in our temp faculty, then average age is 58. My dept 'evaporates' a bit more each year with each retirement, as none are replaced. Those of us still in my dept? Surprise! We continue to get older.

11. carol90403 - July 28, 2010 at 11:06 am

#5 just FYI, Social Security has already been raised. After 1957 [I think that is the cut-off] your age to be eligible for full benefits raises a bit, for each year. The goal is to eventually raise it to 70, for full benefits eligibility [for me, it's 68, so I can't get full benfits until 68] And, I get an even better deal by waiting to claim them till 70 [as will anybody born after 1957].

In California, there is talk of raising retirement ages for teachers/firefighters and other public service areas [from 55 to 55, or 55 to 60, depending on the union deal]. For professors I would expect the same.

Those who 'wait for retirements' will be waiting a long time with both rising ages and decreased savings/retirement benefits of those who are just not retiring. I also predict it will become a discrimination issue as more older workers stay in their positions.

Also these positions, as pointed out, often get replaced by nontenure or adjunct positions, so there should be rethinking about this situation that goes beyond just waiting for retirements or thinking that the positions will be replaced by full time tenured faculty.

12. awdoane - July 28, 2010 at 02:35 pm

I think that it is true that many faculty cannot afford to retire. I didn't begin contributing to TIAA-CREF until I was in my first tenure-track position in my mid 30s (thus losing a decade of contributions and compounding). My initial contributions were very small because my salary was in the low $30s (early 1990s). As soon I was promoted and tenured I increased my retirement savings (first time I wasn't living paycheck to paycheck) but now I was 40+ and playing catchup. I've done some projections and found that if I work until I am 70 or older, I should have enough (savings and increased social security) to consider retiring. I have friends and relatives in both the public and private sectors who are retiring at my age (55) but my reality is different. My university offers "incentives, but nothing worth any serious consideration. And I am not complaining--I LOVE teaching and will probably feel very sad when I walk out of the classroom for the last time.

As a department chair, I pray daily that none of my colleagues retire. I KNOW that I would not be allowed to replace the position.

13. procrustes - July 29, 2010 at 04:51 pm

#11 FYI the adjustments start with those born in 1938 and the current full retirement for those born in 1960 and later is 67. See http://www.ssa.gov/retire2/agereduction.htm

I don't advise anyone to expect many jobs resulting from a wave of retirements. When I was in grad school in the 1980s, the line was just wait until the big wave of retirements in the 90s. New dates, same delusions.

14. jejarrett3425 - August 11, 2010 at 01:51 pm

Good predictive models produced in the early 1980's indicated that faculty would take the option to retire later than the age of 65 and not be induced to take early retirements. The purpose of the removal of the age of 65 forced retirement was for universities to keep their most valuable professorial talent longer than permeitted by the 65 age restriction. Many faculty have availed themslves of this opportunity and we can expect them to continue to do this. For universities to encourage early retirement they will have to develp useful strategies to induce faculty to retire and at the same time induce the ones they wish to retain not to retire. University administrations have not found that strategy. This is in part due to the lack of foresight by state governemnts which support state universities by the administration at private universities as well. As for me, I love teaching and pub;lishing and I have no plans to retire for many years.

15. aylwin_forbes - August 16, 2010 at 01:58 pm

Have you noticed the sharp divide between hiring practices for faculty and presidents. For the latter, lavish searches are carried out and salaries and perks mushroom, all justified by the "need" to find the best qualified candidates. When an experienced faculty member retires, the position is eliminated in order to "cut costs." Do boards of trustees ever notice this?

16. rose6929 - August 16, 2010 at 03:39 pm

As a 31 year old assistant professor on a tenure track, I can't pretend I am not grateful that my predecessor finally retired well into his 60's, making his position an open line. However, there are many other reasons why retiring is not the answer.

Do these professors retiring actually lead to positions becoming available? Luckily, mine did. However, with the incredible rise of adjunct hires over full-time positions [according to the NCES: From 1992 to 2003, the total number of part-time instructors rose by 41 percent]. Will their position's be handed down or just vanish?

Also, keeping in mind how long it often takes to obtain a full-time position, and to become tenured-- retiring at 65 might mean you have only had 15 years or so to truly be the professional scholar you worked so hard to become. These now "older faculty", were once young, with their careers being blocked, and they are finally free!
My father, is a 70 year old tenured professor with no intention of retiring. Why should he? He has only been tenured since 1998. Now, that he is no longer fighting to keep is course load, and to become promoted, he can begin utilizing his mental energy and the professional perks of being an academic to do more...like write his second book with the support of the University, or presenting research at international conferences. In what other profession would society expect someone to step down, just as they break their stride?

With extreme budget cuts, vanishing full-time positions and the institution's fading support of faculty scholarly growth, it is hard to point a finger at non-retiring professors as the reason younger scholars' careers are being blocked. The system has become lopsided, so why shouldn't retiring statistics and trends become lopsided too?

17. tomk3 - August 16, 2010 at 04:06 pm

I have no interest in retiring. I wanted to be a scientist as a little boy, I love being an academic scientist now, and I'm not going to magically not want to do it when I turn 65. I'm well funded and doing work that is at least as original as when I was in my 20s. This is not a 9-to-5 job where I'm stuck in some tedious situation and can't wait to get out, it's the best life I can imagine.

If someone wants to examine the impact of people like me on hiring of new asst profs, I suggest they also have a look at the explosive growth in the number of extremely well paid and duplicative administrators. By scaling back the numbers of deans, provosts, academic vice presidents, associate deans, associate provosts, associate academic vice presidents, assistant deans....and the army of consultants to even 2000 levels, we could grow our academic departments without worrying about retirements.

18. kooshster - August 16, 2010 at 08:31 pm


Everyone, article author and commenters together, are missing the point.

The data backing these assertions up are pathetic. It may well be that the average age of professors has risen by 2 years in around a decade, but then so has the average age of the US population as a whole (between 1990 and 2000 censuses).

The cherry-picked survey polls don't make any meaningful comparisons either. Two thirds of professors choose "personal preference" over financial reasons as their reason for prolonging retirement? Big whoop. What would be great to know would be how that compared with other demographic groups or during other times.

Methinks that the difficulty in getting new academic recruits lies somewhere else (e.g. systematic cutting of academic research budgets and/or rise in HR style management) rather than professors staying on a bit longer having realised that due to generally increasing life expectancy they might live to enjoy retirement a bit longer. This article is a massive red herring.

19. davidfriedman - August 17, 2010 at 09:14 am

A number of people have commented on the trend to replace tenure track positions with alternatives, but nobody seems to have suggested the link between that and the abolition of forced retirement. Tenure used to be a contract which guaranteed the professor employment up to 65 but not beyond that. Once the second half was abolished, it became a much less attractive arrangement from the standpoint of the university, since it risked getting stuck with aging and increasingly unproductive professors who it didn't want but couldn't get rid of. That is surely one of the reasons, although not the only one, for the shift away from tenure track employment.

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