Colleges face decline in retirement age

Ken Eisinger

As Donald Gillmor cleans out his office today, he feels like he’s throwing away people.
The journalism law professor kept many of his student files during his 34 years at the University. After retiring in June, Gillmor counts himself among the group of professors who are cleaning out their offices for the first time in three or four decades.
Many instructors in the College of Liberal Arts are reaching an age where professors traditionally contemplate retirement. College administrators anticipate numerous retirements in the next decade as the average age of their faculty continues to climb.
From June 14 to Dec. 15, 18 professors will retire from CLA, a relatively small amount. But the number of retirees this year is a precursor to larger figures in the next decade, said Michael Hancher, associate dean of faculty for the college.
More indicative of impending retirements is the average age of the college’s faculty: 56. This median is mirrored in universities across the nation; nearly half of the country’s 550,000 full-time professors are older than 50 and many are past 60, concluded presenters at a North Carolina State University conference on retirement in May.
“At 57, it’s uncommon for faculty to retire,” Hancher said. “Around 59, 60, you begin to hear more about it.”
One person who anticipates hearing about retirements is William Brustein, chairman of the sociology department.
Brustein said his department could lose nearly half of its 25 tenured faculty members to retirements in the next two to three years. Four professors retired this year and Brustein anticipates four to six more retiring by 2001.
Losing professors to retirements is a trade-off, Brustein said. A department’s prestige and national rank suffer immediately after the retirement of eminent faculty, but new instructors bring fresh ideas and energy to a department, he said.
In 1960, the University was overflowing with fresh ideas, when many of the professors who will soon retire first arrived.
Popular and government investment in higher education skyrocketed in the early 1960s as baby boomers entered college and the space race escalated. Many colleges, including the University, went on hiring sprees and schools experienced large expansions.
Now, professors hired in that boom are reaching their mid- to late-60s.
The history department exemplifies this trend, said Josef Altholz, a professor of history. The department went through a hiring craze in the 1960s and will see four retirements this year. Up to 40 percent of the history faculty could retire in the next few years, Altholz said.
Altholz said the absence of experienced professors in the coming years will not affect the quality of education in the classroom.
Maintaining the caliber of instruction is a high priority when screening new faculty, he said. “We’re very conscious of that in the hiring process,” Altholz said. “We’re losing experience and gaining enthusiasm.”
Three professors will arrive in the history department this year, hires which were made possible by a healthy University economy.
Increased legislative support allows college officials to compensate for the retirements by hiring new professors. In the last two years, the college has hired 62 new instructors.
The prospect of veteran professors retiring in the near future is incentive to hire aggressively, Hancher said. “That’s why we recruit well now,” he said. “We have 10 years to do it.”
Students are also sensing the countdown to certain professors’ retirements. Gerhard Weiss, a German professor, said he had to request a larger classroom for the final time he taught his German Civilization and Culture course spring quarter.
Weiss, who retired in June, attributed the enrollment partly to semester conversion and partly to students hurrying to take his class before he left.
After 42 years at the University, Weiss chose to retire to free up positions for incoming professors.
“It’s a changing of the guard,” Weiss said. “It’s necessary for the University to have young people to move forward.”
There is no specific age at which professors begin considering retirement, but that was not always the case.
Until 1994, University retirement policy forced professors to leave once they turned 70 years old. A 1986 federal amendment forced the universities across the country to abolish mandatory retirement by 1994, asserting the policies discriminated against professors based on age.
Today instructors retire voluntarily anywhere from their mid- to late-50s through their early 70s, Hancher said.
Gillmor, who is 72, joked about his longer-than-average tenure at the University.
“Some people retire when they’re 50,” he chuckled. “My God, I was just hitting my pace at 55.”