Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      September 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 2

An Unretiring Community

by Nick Riddle

You put your life into your work, wearing grooves in classroom floors, nurturing the young minds of the nation, and burning enough midnight oil to light a small country. Driven by a passion for learning, for decades you pore over arcane volumes and old microfilms in the libraries of the world and cut footpaths through the sward of ignorance. Suddenly they present you with a gold watch and show you the door.

And you’re only 65.

At least, that’s the way it used to happen for professors. But times are changing. For one thing, soon there won’t be enough gold watches to go around.

“The 1950s and 1960s were a big time for faculty hires, and those people are now retiring or near retirement,” says Susan Eklund, Byron Root Professor on Aging, associate dean of the faculties, and associate director of the Center on Aging and Aged at IU Bloomington. “After the early 1970s, the rate of new hires dropped off again, which means that today we’re top-heavy with retiring faculty.”

Susan Eklund is Byron A. Root Professor on Aging and associate dean of the faculties at Indiana University Bloomington. Photo © 2001 Tyagan Miller

It’s a trend that has become known as “the graying of the academy.” Professors who began their careers around the middle of the last century are now at retirement age. This is in line with the wider population, too—an ever-increasing percentage of the population of the United States is age 65 and over. The U. S. Administration on Aging projects a figure of 20 percent by 2030.

If this draining of talent and wisdom from academia worries its institutions, the retiring faculty are not greatly pleased with the situation either. Given the leap in life expectancy and the oft-cited correlation between education and longevity, academics who retire in their 60s and are garlanded with the title of professor emeritus can easily have 20 years or more of productive life ahead of them.

Recent research has confirmed what to most of us is common sense, namely, that an active life in retirement is a good thing.

“Meaningful activity lowers the risk of mortality,” Eklund says. “Of course, it has to be meaningful to the retiree in question. As academics, we become very invested in our professional roles, and a large part of how we identify ourselves is wrapped up in what we do.” It stands to reason, says Eklund, that “most retired faculty function better if they have some role in the academic world.”

Eklund became interested in the subject of retired faculty through her work in the School of Education. In 1996, the school formed a committee to address the needs and concerns of its faculty retirees. Eklund co-chaired the committee, which sent a questionnaire to retired faculty. Among the questions were: What were they doing in retirement? What would they like to do at IU that they couldn’t? Where was the university falling short in its consideration of professors emeriti? “We formed focus groups and held symposia,” says Eklund, “and a list of concerns emerged.”

High on that list was a feeling among faculty emeriti that they were a neglected asset, that the university failed to recognize the potential of its retirees. There was also a general feeling that the emerita or emeritus title was an important one (see box). “Using the word shows that they still have a status, that they’re still a presence,” says Eklund. “The word ‘retirement’ has strong suggestions of absence.”

The committee established many other areas of concern, including the following:

• Faculty emeriti missed the interaction with current faculty and were keen to find intellectual stimulation.
• Some noted that they had acquired various kinds of invisibility. They still had an office on campus, for example, but the office was not listed in the IU telephone directory (“That has since been remedied,” reports Eklund); they rarely received faculty mailings or newsletters; they were sent no notices about updated training in information technology or other areas.
• Many saw a need for a gathering place in the School of Education, such as a lounge, for more casual interaction between faculty and students.
• Many emeriti also felt that they could help to address problems in the School of Education, either as mentors or advisers. They suggested that junior faculty could use more help developing ideas, improving instruction skills, and building dossiers for promotion and tenure.

“The committee’s work began to change the climate at the school,” Eklund says, and she points to some examples: Greater numbers of emeriti now serve on doctoral committees and teach courses, and many more are now active in mentoring and advising roles. “Some are also continuing their research past retirement,” she adds.

Now that the university is beginning to see the benefits of this approach, Eklund’s own work has diversified. She appointed a group of retired IU faculty members to help her identify areas of concern and advise her on how to organize for the future. There are also initial plans for an Emeritus Center, with dedicated office space and resources and a coordinated program of services for retired faculty. It’s an idea that has several precedents around the country, as Eklund discovered.

To follow up on the work begun at the School of Education, Eklund took a sabbatical in 2000 and toured the United States. She wanted to discover more about how higher education was dealing with the aging issue. She visited institutions that she could identify as having active and creative programs to keep faculty emeriti involved. “It’s hard to find out about them,” she says, “since they’re such a new and disparate group.” Her findings revealed a growing network of centers and programs for emeriti and older faculty at universities all over the country.

The Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, for instance, runs programs for local retirees as well as faculty. Their sessions orient newcomers to the community, which is a favorite retirement destination for the well-educated. At Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Eklund visited the Academy of Senior Professionals. “They draw highly qualified working or semi-retired people,” she says. “It’s a very selective program.”

The Emeritus Colleges at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles are two of the oldest such programs. Both are heavily involved in the surrounding community, presenting courses taught by professors emeriti in senior centers around Los Angeles County. Emeritus centers such as this are often committed to more practical aspects of their constituents’ welfare, too, such as pension benefits and health plans.

“As I went around speaking with people,” says Eklund, “I realized that retired faculty everywhere were all experiencing the same things. Once the health and pension plans are ironed out, they’re left with the same issues as our group in the IU School of Education.” Those universal issues involved desiring a continued connection to their university and feeling that they had useful knowledge they were willing to contribute. But just as importantly, Eklund’s respondents shared the general concern about the invisibility that can come with retirement. “They don’t want to have to go knocking on the door and say ‘Here I am,’” says Eklund. “They need to be asked.”

The tour confirmed Eklund’s beliefs about an institution’s relationship with its retirees. “Universities that make the effort to solicit and coordinate the involvement of emeriti find that their investment comes back manyfold,” she says. “It can solve problems in a very creative way.”

An honorable distinction
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term “emeritus” to its Latin root in the verb emereri, meaning “to earn (one’s discharge) by service.” The past participle, emeritus, was used to describe a soldier who had served his time and been rewarded with an honorable discharge.

The first recorded use of the word in an academic context occurs in 1794, when the U.S. Register in Philadelphia refers to an “Emeritus professor of divinity.” Similarly, Thomas DeQuincey’s Letter on Education (1860) makes mention of an “emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy.”

Formerly, the title of emeritus had to be conferred by a university. This is no longer the case. The usage of “emeritus” ranges from a phrase simply meaning “former” or “retired” (as in “emeritus board member“) to an earned rank in recognition of long and honorable service to a university.

Whatever its usage, it has the effect, common to many Latin phrases, of adding a note of distinction to its subject.

For instance, many universities, including IU, are concerned that tighter budgets have led to a higher percentage of courses being taught by non–tenure-track faculty—that is, by graduate assistants or temporary instructors. Retired faculty could make up that shortfall and bring their wealth of experience back into the classroom. “These professors are still in the university system,” Eklund points out. “We need to draw on their expertise.”

There is another very important point to continuing to involve faculty after retirement. “Emeriti turn out to be good fundraisers,” says Eklund. “They’re loyal, and they know the institution inside out. They are also more likely to remember their university in their estate plans if it continues to reach out to them.” Given the concern of university fundraisers with long-term donor cultivation, this is an opportunity few institutions would want to miss.

“We’re definitely seeing a change in consciousness,” Eklund observes. “Academics are now much less likely to retire outright, years before they lose the capacity to make a contribution.” Most academics, she says, don’t want to quit altogether; many choose to reduce their involvements over time. “There will always be some academics who work full tilt until they drop in their tracks, but not that many,” she adds. Some institutions have established a phased retirement plan to ease the process, Eklund notes, although this has yet to happen at IU.

Retirement can be a very productive time for academics. For one thing, the sudden freedom from mandatory committees and administrative duties can kick-start a faculty member’s long-cherished project. “Many emeriti are still incredibly involved in research they never got a chance to finish,” says Eklund, who receives the annual reports requested from all retired IU faculty. “Some of them finish books they wanted to write for years but couldn’t find the time.”

You can take the professor out of the university, then, but not the other way around. That’s a principal reason for the growth of retirement housing on or near campuses in several instances. Besides IU’s own Meadowood Retirement Community, there are major housing projects for academic retirees at the universities of Washington, Florida, and Pennsylvania, among others. It’s a natural development of the trend towards keeping retired faculty involved in the university to which they have given so much of their professional lives.

“For a large part of their careers, they’ve been part of an intellectual community,” says Eklund. “And you don’t retire from a community.”

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