The Merit in Emeritus
Aging gracefully in the academy

By Eugene Bianchi, Professor of Religion, and John Bugge, Professor of English


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A 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 reputation.

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 duties.

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 Professors.