Join the discussion
changing of the guard
Academic Exchange December
1999/January 2000 Contents Page
Grow old along with me! The
best is yet to be," declared Robert Browning in "Rabbi
ben Ezra," his lyrical invitation to age with dignity and
creativity. Recent social and economic trends have put new pressures
on the academy to extend such an invitation to faculty. While
observers of higher education have heralded the undeniable advent
of a "graying professoriate," Emory has not yet found
a way to permit its faculty to grow old gracefully.
Emeriti faculty and those contemplating retirement face a here-today-
gone-tomorrow phenomenon at the close of their careers at Emory.
The break from university life is swift and clean. At commencement
ceremonies, retirees' names are announced to a polite applause,
and that's the last one hears of them. There is little opportunity
to retain contact with colleagues, even if emeriti professors
want to continue an active scholarly life and serve the university
in some way.
Through a survey we conducted of Emory faculty over the age of
fifty-five (including emeriti faculty), we discovered retirement
can mean being "instantly marginalized or cast into oblivion,"
according to one respondent. Another observed that emeriti faculty
who continue research and writing are often glimpsed in passing
on their way to and from the library stacks--"rather like
lost souls." Warned yet another respondent, "An experienced
mind should not be wasted."
External pressures are also forcing the issue. Higher education
is struggling with the 1994 expiration of a federal rule that
had mandated retirement at age seventy. Before that time, mandatory
retirement enabled administrators to predict faculty openings.
Further, demographics are showing that nearly a third of the
nation's full-time faculty members are fifty-five and older,
compared to approximately 25
percent ten years ago. (At Emory, 24.6 percent of the faculty
are fifty-five and older, but a full 46 percent are between the
ages of 40 and 54.) With longer life expectancy extending the
period in which most Americans remain active, it is conceivable
that professors will continue working well into their seventies
and even their eighties.
Foreseeing a potentially lopsided professoriate, colleges and
universities are now seeking ways to entice faculty into retirement
in order to open up salary lines for younger scholars. Some institutions
have encouraged professors to work part-time for a set number
of years, earning a portion of their salary. In return, the professors
give up their tenure. Other administrations are engaging in overt
age discrimination, attempting to prove incompetence in older
faculty in order to force them out to pasture when, in fact,
there is no validity to the notion that age is related to productivity
within the academy.
On a more positive side, however, a number of institutions, including
Cornell, Vanderbilt, and the universities of Arizona and Southern
California, have established emeritus centers to supply institutional
connections for retired faculty who wish to continue their intellectual
and social involvement in collegial life. Emory ought likewise
to make better use of the accumulated wisdom and experience these
people have to offer.
With that possibility in mind, in 1999, the two of us gathered
a steering committee of fourteen faculty (ourselves included)
and submitted a proposal for an emeritus college at Emory. We
believe it would combat the sudden isolation retirees experience,
sustain and cultivate the talents of our retiring professors,
and gain Emory a number of significant advantages. Such a center
would serve as a locus for intellectual exchange and scholarly
activities and as an administrative clearing-house for service
functions performed by emeriti faculty.
We envision the emeritus college as a suite of offices or studies
that would provide private space on a rotating basis to emeriti
faculty for up to one year. An adjacent common room and a seminar
room would offer places for collegial exchange. This site would
give an institutional home to retired Emory professors who continue
to teach, write, consult, and fill the role of public intellectual.
It would enhance the amount and quality of research, writing,
and consulting pursued in the university, benefiting its general
We also imagine the emeritus college as a center for innovative,
ongoing, interdisciplinary exchange. In addition to a series
of interdisciplinary seminars organized by the emeriti faculty,
the college might also offer an agency through which Emory could
extend its intellectual reach and penetration into national and
international issues. For example, the emeritus college might
identify a compelling concern or problem around which to organize
itself as a "think tank" for one year, sponsoring speakers,
seminars, lectures, film presentations, even a nationally publicized
symposium. In the future, the college might institute an "emeritus
scholar-in-residence program" for outstanding retired professors
with established national reputations, offering them modest stipends
and living allowances for a "sabbatical" stay at Emory
in exchange for relatively light teaching, mentoring, and consulting
At the most practical level, retired faculty in the emeritus
college could make themselves available for an array of services
to the community, such as guest lecturing, occasional short-notice
substitute teaching, leading freshman seminars, formal and informal
mentoring of graduate students, service on dissertation and examination
committees, involvement in alumni events (for it is often the
older professors that most alumni recall from their student days),
assistance in development efforts and donor cultivation, and
engagement in outreach activities in the Atlanta community. The
college not only would provide incentive for older regular faculty
to retire earlier than they might otherwise, thus relieving the
university of a portion of a heavy financial obligation, it also
would offer incentive
to dynamic younger faculty to stay at Emory for the length of
their careers, rather than being hired away to other institutions.
By honoring this segment of our community, we at Emory may tap
knowledge, experience, and institutional memory that would keep
us from repeating past mistakes and offer insight into our progress.
We may also build a new understanding between younger and older
faculty, discovering solidarity and common purpose in our individual
and institutional endeavors.
Professor of Religion
Eugene Bianchi, whose research examines issues of aging and spirituality,
will retire this year. Professor of English John Bugge is president
of the Emory chapter of the American Association of University