April 3, 2000
Volume 52, No. 27
Put the 'merit' in emeritus
Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be," declared Robert Browning in Rabbi ben Ezre, 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 the 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 55 (including emeriti faculty), we discovered retirement can mean "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 mandated retirement at age 70. 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 55 and older, compared to approximately 25 percent 10 years ago. (At Emory, 24.6 percent of faculty are 55 and older, but a full 46 percent are between the ages of 40 and 54). With longer life expectancy extending the active lives of most Americans, it is conceivable that professors will continue working well into their 70s and even their 80s.
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 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, last year the two of us gathered a steering committee of 14 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 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 clearinghouse 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 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, emeritus faculty could make themselves available for an array of services to the community, such as guest lecturing, occasional substitute teaching, leading freshman seminars, formal and informal mentoring of graduate students, service on dissertation and examination committees, involvement in alumni events (it is often older professors whom 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 partly relieving the University of a heavy financial obligation, it also would offer incentive to dynamic younger faculty to stay at Emory for the lengths of their careers, rather than leave for 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.
Eugene Bianchi is a professor of religion and John Bugge is a professor of English.This article first appeared in Academic Exchange.