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Oct 6, 2010 9:39 am

When Should a Tenured Professor Retire?

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Food for Thought

Claire Potter

You heard it here first: I will retire as a tenured professor no later than the spring of 2025. I will be 67....

Why go at 67? I believe that if senior scholars offer experience, young Ph.D.’s challenge us with new knowledge. Furthermore, while a classroom presence does not necessarily deteriorate with age, we don’t always notice, or want to admit it, when we become diminished. Setting a voluntary retirement date, well in advance of any decline, respects this reality.

KC Johnson

First, the era has long passed in which a tenure-track faculty position automatically replaces a retired professor, as colleges instead opt for higher percentages of contingent faculty, who cost much less money. A handful of resource-starved public universities (CUNY, under the leadership of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, comes to mind) have bucked the trend, but too often the real-world choice comes between classes taught by a longtime professor who has delayed retirement or by an adjunct, hired at the last minute without a competitive national search.

Second, and to a degree unprecedented in the history of American higher education, the contemporary academy has aggressively limited the number of topics to which students can be exposed. New faculty lines have been crafted to place an increasing number of research questions and pedagogical approaches off-limits.

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More Comments:

Paul E Hoffman - 8/18/2010

Thanks to Claude Pepper faculty in public institutions no longer have to retire at 70, or 65. The question for anyone is whether teaching is still "fun," one can do it physically, and one is fairly certain that the students are being served (they will make it clear if they are not!). Secondarily in these fiscally troubled times, a consideration is supporting the "side," that is the department, which could loose the line, putting a heavier burden on younger faculty who remain and seriously disrupting programs, esp. at the graduate level. And of course one has to retire to something - perhaps writing those books that could not be completed due to a heavy teaching load or other responsibilities, or to travel. I certainly know a number of scholars whose output increased many times over once they were retired. I suspect that for a healthy person, the point of decision is somewhere in the early 70s. That's where I expect to make my own decision. Meanwhile, I enjoy what I do!

James Goodman - 8/18/2010

So complicated an issue, and so many differences between experiences of different people at different kinds of institutions. I'd love to set a retirement date, but I don't have the slightest idea when I'll be able to afford to retire, or if I'll ever be able to afford to retire. I live an extremely modest life in an extremely expensive city and teach at a public university in one of our financially failed states. I don't expect my salary is going to increase as fast as the cost of living in the sixteen years between now and my 70th birthday. My benefits are likely going to be reduced. And my state's contribution to my retirement is going to go down. When the time comes, I will do what some of my very productive and smart senior colleagues have done: refused to retire until the university agreed to hire a junior person in a tenure track line to replace them. But who knows if we'll continue to have that power.

So I might like to retire--or at least stop taking a full time salary--at a reasonable age, both to make room for the young and to devote myself to nothing but reading and writing. But whether I'll be in as good a position as Mark Taylor to do so I can't say. It shouldn't go without notice that Professor Taylor--a leading advocate of mandatory retirement--is both Emeritus Professor at Williams and Professor of Religion (and chair of the department) at Columbia. My guess is that his retirement at a reasonable age will be less complicated to arrange than mine.