The Greatness Game

The End of Work?
Riding the retirement wave


Vol. 9 No. 6
May 2007

Return to Contents


The Greatness Game
Strengthening faculty distinction at Emory

On leave

“We have a distinctive institutional culture and history that is what we have to offer in the higher education world, and I don’t want to give that up in order to chase some abstract image of excellence.”

“I think in many ways some of the people who ask why this is this such a big deal are the very ones who are keeping the status quo.”

Faculty in Flux
Opportunities and challenges

The End of Work?
Riding the Retirement Wave

Hard Money/Soft Money
The two cultures


Endnotes

 

If Emory’s faculty continue to retire at the same rate they have on average over the past five years (about 6 percent, according to Human Resources), in the next eight years, 477 faculty will retire. That’s 17 percent of the current cadre. Far more—almost half—will be eligible for retirement during the same period.

Call it a wave or a bubble, the skew toward an older faculty body has been foreseen for years. Of Emory’s 2,710 full-time faculty, 6.8 percent are 65 or older and 1.8 percent are 71 or older. More than a quarter are 55 or older, and 19.1 percent are 55 to 64 years. Among the 1,142 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 12.3 percent are 65 or older and 3.4 percent are 71 or older. Forty-two percent are 55 or older, and 29.7 percent are 55 to 64 years.

Emory’s numbers are pretty typical nationally—on average a little younger for nontenured faculty, a little older for tenured faculty. Because faculty are exempt from mandatory retirement, there’s nothing to stop a tenured professor from remaining on the job indefinitely. In fact, from 2001 to 2006, less than 6 percent of Emory faculty who were eligible to retire elected to leave their positions.

It’s not always what their employers want. While senior professors command an extraordinary richness of information and experience, and in some cases a scholarly cachet that elevate an institution’s academic profile, it is the younger ones—or so goes the academic ethos—who are apt to inhabit the frontiers of knowledge and scholarship. Oh yes, they’re also much cheaper.

“It behooves universities financially to replace senior tenured people with junior untenured people,” says Bill Chace, professor of English and emeritus president of Emory. “Emory, along with other universities, faces a huge bulge in the number of people who are soon going to hit sixty-five, which is why I would think Emory would start to do something programmatically with respect to the money. If it did, it would be in the company of legions of schools.”

He’s right. In a recent survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors, 38 percent of colleges said they offered at least one institution-wide incentive to encourage faculty retirement. Emory will soon join them, and the administration is now considering various strategies.

The shift from an academic career to retirement no longer looms as a stark boundary (now you’re employed, now you’re not), and increasingly it signifies not the end of work but only the end of work in exchange for a regular paycheck and benefits. It seems far easier to describe retirement in terms of what it is not rather than what it is. “Before, when you retired without an office or a secretary, you were virtually isolated,” says Nanette Wenger, professor of medicine, chief of cardiology at Grady Hospital, and past chair of the Faculty Life Course Committee, where retirement issues are a frequent topic of discussion. “Now with a computer and email, you can still do many of the same things as preretirement, but you can do them personally and at a distance.”

Absent institutional inducements or overt pressure from the administration to retire (a rarity at Emory, according to faculty who spoke with AE), the decision of how long to stay professionally active before retirement is based on myriad factors. Often, it’s an essential need, such as health care. “Health insurance coverage is one important variable that keeps faculty working,” says Wenger. “The minute you retire, your insurer is Medicare, which is progressively eroding the benefits.” But people also want to sustain intellectual and physical pursuits, preserve relationships with peers, and live with a sense of purpose.

“People who are retiring face a question of identity,” says Eugene Bianchi, emeritus professor of religion and director of the Emeritus College. “Someone may have invested himself in being a professor of math, for instance, and all of a sudden they’re not.

You don’t have students or feedback, and you ask, Who am I?” Through volunteer teaching opportunities and a program of varied activities, including discussion and book groups, art exhibits, presentations by visiting scholars, and regular breakfasts and lunches, Bianchi intends the Emeritus College to build a “few hills to climb,” provide at least some structure for those who face large blocks of suddenly unstructured time, and fulfill a few of the needs that arise in a time of transition. The Emeritus College expects to have about six hundred potential members by 2015—an increase of 43 percent over the ten previous years.

For some, “retirement” simply means a new kind of work. Don Saliers, Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology, will retire in July after forty-one years in academia (thirty-three with Emory), but it sounds more like he’s headed toward a new career than the end of one: lecture invitations from South Korea, Australia, and South Africa; advising Emory graduate students; informal salons at his home for students and colleagues to savor “the sheer joy” of literature and poetry reading. “I’ll be seventy in August. That’s a good biblical age as well as a good chronological year to say that, in this phase of my life, I want to start some new things,” he says.

And always in the back of a scholar’s mind, Saliers adds, is the fear that they’re falling out of touch with the growing edges of research in their field and repeating old patterns. “Those of us who have taught a long time and enjoyed it, it’s time to make space for new scholars.” And, he observes, as the gap of years between teacher and student grows, so does the ability to connect with them. For Saliers, his and his family’s deep roots in music, from sacred to popular, has always formed a generational bridge. During lectures, though, he notices that his literary references “don’t have the kind of immediate accessibility as they once did. I’m more apt to refer to literature that the students aren’t reading now: Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, existentialist literature. So I’m very much aware at that level that my repertoire and resources aren’t quite
as immediately connected.”

Finally, Saliers won’t shed any tears over his newfound freedom from committee assignments and other bureaucratic duties. “To be honest and realistic—you’ll hear this from a lot of us—I’m very interested in getting out from under institutional maintenance.”

Jack Kinkade, emeritus professor of biochemistry, also negotiated the transition well prepared for his post-Emory life after thirty-five years as a faculty member. “I loved being at Emory, but I do have other interests. I just wanted to be free and set the agenda myself. By the time I was ready to sign off, I knew it was the right time,” he says. Now he finds himself “not as retired as I want to be sometimes,” working intensively with the Latino community in Atlanta and Honduras. “If people don’t think long and hard, they’re going to be awash when they retire because they’re so used to defining themselves by what they do.”

Harry Rusche, Arthur Blank Distinguished Professor of English, who has taught at Emory since 1962, acknowledges how heavily his identity is wrapped up in what he does here. “I can’t imagine what I would do in a situation where I would leave Emory. I really love what I do. I love to teach,” he says. Though the same age as Saliers, he presently has no plans to retire. “If I felt I was no longer pulling my weight, I would think really hard about getting out.”
There have to be some very positive reasons for staying, adds Chace. “I think it’s liking what you do, feeling at home in the classroom, and in some cases it might be sheer habit. But at some point you can feel that you no longer have the intuitive understanding of this generation, that you’re no longer with them, their language, and musical tastes. At that point you can say it’s time to hang up your spikes.”—S.F.