OBERLIN, OHIO—The term “gray-haired professor” may seem like a cliché, but there’s some truth to it. Academia has long had a disproportionate number of employees older than 65, and the average American professor is getting even older.
The share of people older than 65 teaching full time at American colleges and universities nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. College professors are now among the oldest Americans in the workforce. Job satisfaction, job protection due to tenure, and concern about their retirement nest eggs are all reasons they cite for sticking around longer. And while their experience is valuable in its own way, the cost of paying senior professors in an era of rising expenses and shrinking endowments has led universities to borrow a budget-cutting strategy from the corporate world: buyouts.
A growing number of private and public universities are resorting to offering large sums of money to faculty and staff in exchange for early retirement (or, if they prefer, heading back to the job market). In the past year alone, Oberlin College here in Oberlin, Ohio; the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; and the University of North Dakota, all offered some sort of voluntary separation-incentive deal to faculty members.
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.
“Our concern is that those tenure-track jobs are not being replaced. That they are just hiring a bunch of part-time professors,” says Barnshaw.
At Oberlin, Krislov says he will not replace full-time, tenured positions with part-time jobs. But he might move positions to departments with more in-demand fields, though he wouldn’t say which ones.
One tenured professor taking the buyout at Oberlin is Roger Copeland, who has been teaching dance and theater there for 41 years. The 66-year-old professor (whose former students include Girls creator Lena Dunham) said he was surprised to get the offer as the semester came to an end.
“I was completely dumbfounded,” said Copeland, a few hours before signing the separation agreement. “I don’t think anybody suspected that the [financial] situation could be so bad.”
Copeland hadn’t plan to retire for at least another four years, but said he couldn’t pass up the deal. He says he understands why the college is doing it, and thinks it will inject the faculty with fresh blood and new ideas. “For what they pay me, they can get two people out of grad school,” he says.
About 85 people so far have accepted the buyout (16 are professors and all are tenured; the rest are administrative and professional staff), representing about 25 percent of all eligible employees, Krislov says. He expects this to save the college about $3 million per year, depending on how many positions are replaced. According to him, the goal isn’t to replace tenured professors with non-tenure-track faculty. “Our commitment to tenure and tenured professors is iron clad,” he says.