John Barnshaw, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Professors, says the financial crises of 2008 dealt a big blow to universities, which had invested much of their endowments in stocks and other financial products. “They started paying very close attention to their portfolios in a way they never have done,” says Barnshaw. “One of the ways they saw to save money was to offer retirement packages.”
Oberlin College, an exclusive liberal arts college about 45 minutes from Cleveland, is testing out this cost-cutting strategy. I recently spoke to the president, Marvin Krislov, about the unexpected, end-of-semester buyout, which was offered to about a third of the faculty. Krislov says the college needs to offset expensive health-care costs and employee salaries. Additionally, he says that Oberlin’s commitment to offering grants and financial help to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds is a source of financial stress. Nearly half of Oberlin’s students receive some sort of financial aid. Tuition and fees, without aid, is about $50,000 a year.
This is the first time the college has offered early retirement packages, says Krislov. Since about 90 percent of faculty is tenured, many end up working way past the traditional retirement age of 65. “[The buyouts] allow us to have more predictability in knowing who is going to be working and until when,” he says.
To take the buyout, employees must be at least 52 years old and must have worked at Oberlin for at least 10 years. The college will then pay their salaries for a year after they leave and waive health insurance premiums during that time.
One reason academia has seen so much aging has to do with federal law. In 1986, Congress barred employers from enforcing mandatory retirement ages, but colleges and universities were exempt for a while. They were able to impose a retirement age of 70 until the exemption expired in 1993. A recent survey of college professors now shows that 60 percent plan to work past the age of 70.
The buyout programs seem like a direct path to reducing the numbers of most highly paid employees. But it also poses a risk: When those professors leave, their tenure-track positions may be replaced with non-tenure-track ones, meaning that over time, the number of tenured positions on campus could plummet. Though tenure has its detractors, it also serves a valuable purpose: Tenured faculty can’t be fired without just cause, which is meant to foster academic freedom and innovation. The rise of tenured positions in the United States was a response to McCarthyism, when university professors were fired for real or imagined ties to the Communist Party.
Over the years, the share of tenured teaching positions has been shrinking, while the percentage of part-time positions has increased. A report from the American Association of University Professors shows that, in the past 40 years, the percentage of professors in full-time, tenured positions dropped by 26 percent and tenure-track positions dropped by 50 percent. Meanwhile, academia has seen a 62 percent jump in full-time, non-tenure-track positions and a 70 percent jump in part-time teaching positions. Today, the majority of academic positions are part-time jobs.