When Should Academics Retire?

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By 2020, the number of university professors over the age of 68 could very well outnumber those in their 30s


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The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a recurring academic topic, what to do now that mandatory retirement is generally illegal. The old regime of "statutory senility" had its advantages. It fell on superstars and slugs alike, it was inexorable, and hence all concerned could plan for it. And for able, active people in their sixties, it wasn't always so bad; as long as public universities were expanding, ambitious schools in the South and West were offering highly paid new jobs to emeritus faculty from the Northeast and Midwest -- more or less from Sputnik to Watergate. Now the system appears to be contracting, state retiree medical benefits are in state governments' sights, Medicare has been challenged, and investment income and cost of living are both uncertain.

The unspoken premise behind retirement programs is the perennial apparent glut of brilliant recent Ph.D.s, and that no matter how sharp and productive a senior faculty member is, you can hire two new assistant professors, or make even more contingent appointments. But academics, unlike other primates, rarely make confrontational challenges to alpha patriarchs or matriarchs on their own.

A 2008 article in Science [link for subscribers] reported:

Because the biomedical enterprise was young and most universities had mandatory faculty retirement until 1994, there were few NIH-funded principal investigators older than 70 in 1980. But in 2007, there were at least 400 of them, according to NIH data. Indeed, NIH projections indicate that grantees over 68 could outnumber scientists under 38 by 2020.

The article also notes that some senior laboratory heads are officially retired and receive grants rather than a teaching salary. Of course this represents the best of both worlds for academic administrators, but it has few counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, especially now that cuts for Federal programs in those areas are imminent.

The real problem is that in the life cycle of any career there is always the dilemma of continuing to work in a style that has been successful but may face a declining yield of new knowledge per unit of work -- or taking a chance on a new program and risking established connections among peers and granting organizations. As a science editor for more than 15 years, I saw a variety of strategies and tradeoffs. I found occasional but still disturbing self-censorship at all career stages. Even some tenured faculty members were giving highest priority to their most innovative ideas; one earth scientist told me it wouldn't be fair to his graduate students looking for jobs in established research paradigms.  (This isn't new; the rebellious Albert Einstein found his patent office job -- a lucky break, actually -- after a conventional university search failed.) Ideally, all of us should be renewing what we do at intervals, taking what we learned in a previous phase and applying it to something new.

The most difficult skill, not only in science and scholarship but in business, is controlled restlessness, knowing when it's time to move on and take what one has learned in ten or fifteen years, bringing it to a fresh set of questions. My late friend Seymour Benzer, still active until his death at age 86, moved from solid-state physics to phage genetics to neurogenetics, brilliantly exploring the versatility of the fruit fly genome.

The tenure system tends to focus on the young and the old, according to the American Council on Education project director quoted in the Chronicle:

"We spend a lot of time with junior faculty as we recruit them and work to retain them and prepare them for tenure," Ms. [Claire Van] Ummersen said. "I think campuses are beginning to understand that providing that same kind of support for latter-stage faculty is just as important."
But what of the people in between? Our grant mechanisms have lost the flexibility to help young, middle-aged, and older researchers move in new directions. As the Science article notes:

One strong theme -- a sense that the review process was more interested in originality in the past -- emerged in comments from this generation of scientists who applied for their first grants in the 1960s or earlier, often in their 20s or early 30s. It was a different game, they say. Not only did NIH have plenty of money to go around, but peer reviewers wanted ideas, not preliminary data. Microbiologist Samuel Kaplan, 74, of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston says he proposed studying a "newish" bacterium that he had never cultured. "If I submitted a proposal like that now, the study session couldn't stop laughing," he says.
If people are encouraged to renew their approach constantly over their careers, both retirement and non-retirement can be more productive. And one partial solution to retirement issues is to use as much as possible of the cost saving to institutions to give emeritus professors a chance to explore more unconventional approaches slighted in conventional peer review. One of the advantages of retirement can be that groupthink loses its grip.

And for deciding on taking intellectual risks, at any stage of life, I recommend Benzer's rule:

If everyone you talk to says you shouldn't do something, you probably shouldn't do it, and if everyone says you should do something, you should also probably not do it; but if half the people you talk to tell you to do it and half say you're crazy, then you should definitely go ahead.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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