When It’s Time to Leave — Leave!
Mandatory Retirement Is Good for Higher Education
By Eugene Arden

From the October 2001 AAHE Bulletin


It was a mistake for the federal government to intrude in university life by banning mandatory retirement at any age. We have had a half-dozen years of experience with the law on retirement as now written, and it is clearly time for a change.

When the administration in Washington, D.C., removed the age limit in 1994, it caused harmful disruptions in the normal and sensible flow of academic careers from graduate school, to the three ranks of professorship, to voluntary retirement at about age 65 or mandatory retirement at age 70. Instead, it is now possible for professors to take advantage of the legislation and hang on indefinitely beyond 70 to 75 and 80 or later.

In doing so, they are preventing young scholars who are at the beginning stage from entering the pipeline. Unfortunately, these older professors also delay colleagues already in the system from moving up in rank when they should. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t good for the profession.

My intention here is not to be harsh or insensitive. It is possible and plausible to provide for a continuing presence on campus for those beloved old professors of academic folklore. Lab space, library privileges, secretarial assistance, access to high-powered computers — these are just a few of the no-cost or low-cost ways of maintaining a place in academic life for emeritus professors without inhibiting the careers of young colleagues.

Nor need we be fearful of being accused of throwing old and poverty-stricken seniors into the cold. The economics of the profession have changed since the advent of TIAA-CREF, faculty unions, and augmented state retirement systems. The fact is that nowadays those 70-year-olds have amassed enough equity in a retirement system to live securely and comfortably, if modestly, until the time of their death, with options available to take care of spouses as well until the time of their death.

Making Room in the Pipeline
The ones who deserve our special attention and profound concern are the 30-year-old Ph.D.s who are driving cabs or are “lucky” enough to be teaching a course here or there as adjuncts — or are seeking alternative careers as paralegals, physician assistants, or whatever. For them, the pipeline is clogged, even closed, perhaps forever. Both in cultural and human terms, we cannot afford to lose a substantial segment of our best and brightest, and we therefore should not meekly accept a federal intrusion that pushes us precisely toward such a loss.

Of course, one might ask why we are worrying about a non-problem. When retirement for faculty members was finally uncapped in 1994, there was hardly a ripple of fear about the consequences. The consensus held that at 65, 68, or 70 at the latest, nearly all faculty members would retire anyway, just as so many of them had been doing. Indeed, the opportunity seemed too alluring to resist — to engage in one’s research at one’s own pace, to enjoy more time with grandchildren, and perhaps even to play golf year-round in warm weather.

If that were the way it had actually worked out, even with some occasional exceptions, we would have no reason to fuss about retirement options. But that is not at all what is happening. In just a half-dozen years since the uncapping, we are struck by the statistical trends that tell us that the professoriate, on average, is graying at an unprecedented rate, and the next half-dozen years will show us even more startling results.

For example, the report “Did the Elimination of Mandatory Retirement Affect Faculty Retirement Flows?” by Orley Ashenfelter and David Card, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at retirement rates at 37 institutions and found that in 1993 (when mandatory retirement rules were still in effect) about two-thirds of professors reaching the age of 70 did retire, and nearly all were gone in the following year. Once the mandatory provision was lifted, however, the percentage who voluntarily retired at age 70 plummeted from two-thirds to about one-third. (For more on this survey or to purchase a copy of the full report, contact the National Bureau of Economic Research, 617/868-3900, www.nber.org.)

Also, the “Faculty Survey 1998” by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute reports that 32 percent of all faculty members are 55 and older (compared with 24 percent in 1989), while the portion who are younger than 45 has declined from 41 percent in 1989 to 34 percent. (The “2001-02 Faculty Survey” is currently being conducted and results are expected in 2002. For more information on the survey, see the Higher Education Research Institute’s website, www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/heri.html.)

We are thus not dealing with merely marginal changes.

Recent legislation that is clearly helpful to senior citizens in general could also discourage professors from retiring. Previously, Social Security income was reduced or lost if recipients had salary income. New laws, however, allow those 65 and over to receive full Social Security benefits, regardless of the amount of income they earn, so a professor can stay on, collecting both salary and full Social Security benefits.

The Cost of Staying On
In addition to clogging the pipeline, delayed retirements are very costly to the institutions. An American Association of University Professors (AAUP) survey tells us, for example, that the average salaries for full, associate, and assistant professors at doctoral-granting universities are, respectively, $88,222, $61,478, and $52,999; at non-doctoral-granting comprehensive universities, the averages are $68,299, $54,499, and $44,298. Throughout the AAUP data, as we would expect, similar disparities exist between the senior and junior ranks, telling us plainly how much more expensive the salary line is when universities become top-heavy with full professors.

How does the department chair or dean deal with a budget problem caused by a preponderance of top salaries? Well, one way is to make extraordinarily frequent use of adjuncts, who become cheap labor to cover freshman- and sophomore-level courses. Naturally, delayed retirements are not alone the cause of excessive reliance on less prepared and underpaid adjuncts, but the two phenomena are clearly linked and the consequent questions about the quality of undergraduate education cannot be ignored.

Another unfortunate side effect concerns the public uneasiness about tenure. It is difficult enough to explain why professors need the protection of tenure for the sake of academic freedom, but the idea of “job security” that can last into one’s 80th year and beyond simply overrides all other considerations in the public mind. There are good answers to the question “Why should professors have the kind of job protection that no one else has?” But it is virtually impossible to win that argument when discussing what is widely perceived as a lifetime guarantee of employment, regardless of performance.

Of course, there are procedures for encouraging retirement, such as phaseouts and buyouts, but they are expensive and serve only to exacerbate budget problems. Some changes in the legislation might be achieved if a leadership role on this issue were taken by such organizations as the American Association for Higher Education, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Indeed, a useful precedent exists. The Age Discrimination Act was passed in 1986, but for the next eight years, until 1994, colleges and universities were granted an exemption that permitted them to continue mandatory retirement for the professoriate at age 70. What we need now is the enactment of an exemption once again, not for just eight years, but for the indefinite future. After all, if police officers and airline pilots can face mandatory retirement at an appropriate age, why not professors?

Eugene Arden is provost-vice chancellor emeritus at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He is now retired and living in Florida.



Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation