The Problem of Aging Professors

While it can be a tough time to be a college student, it’s also a challenging time for the colleges and universities themselves. While most schools battle shrinking enrollment and funding, many are now facing a new dilemma — how to replace aging professors. According to an article by Audrey Williams June of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a substantial number of the nation’s professors are in the twilight of their careers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of professors who are 65 years old and up more than doubled between 2000 and 2011. At Cornell University, one of the nation’s elite, more than one in three tenured or tenure track professors is 60 years old or older. The article also reported that the ratio of professors over the age of 60 was at least one in four at other major universities like Duke University, George Mason University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Texas at Austin.

To make things more difficult for institutions like these, faculty members can retire at will and are no longer subject to mandatory retirement. This means that institutions struggle to manage faculty renewal when the position that would have been left behind by a retired faculty member may be lost completely to budget cuts, rather than being passed on younger Ph.D.s in waiting. These problems particularly affect the nation’s elite schools, where professors have the freedom to design their curricula and research around their own interests. Other institutions that don’t offer flexible workload have shown that faculty members are more inclined to retire.

The issue is further compounded by the fact that many aging faculty members are those who have dedicated their careers to shape the academic landscape of the institution they work for, many of whom are lifetime employees. For example, Peter J. Lang, an 81-year old graduate research professor at the University Florida, dedicated his career to behavior therapy research, according to the Chronicle. He has conducted this research over his entire career and at three different universities. Lang feels that he still has more to accomplish, and retirement would mean leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of research, the Chronicle reported.

while there is no easy fix for the issue, Cornell is trying to remedy the situation by setting aside funds to “pre-fill” positions for faculty members near retirement. Cornell’s G. Peter Lepage, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, noted that the number of retirements in his department has almost doubled the annual rate of retirements in the late 1980s, at around 15 per year. While he recognizes that hiring new faculty before a retirement comes with risks, he believes it’s essential because the college is “hiring for its reputation.”

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