University adjusts to retiring faculty

More than 40 percent of the U’s faculty are categorized as near the age of retirement.

Kevin Beckman

As the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age, colleges and universities — including the University of Minnesota — across the country are dealing with growing numbers of retiring faculty members. 

While the University is no different, school officials said the increasing retirements won’t affect the University as a whole. Still, the Twin Cities campus has seen 280 faculty members retire in the last five years, with 73 retiring in 2015 alone. More than 40 percent of Twin Cities faculty members are 55 and older — an age that the University categorizes as near the traditional retirement age. 

“It’s important to remember that some people are winding down their productivity even in their early 60s, where the other people are going strong to 80,” said Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Rebecca Ropers-Huilman. “So it’s really hard to even guess who’s going to be retiring quickly unless they’ve made that known.”

To help aid in the transition for retiring faculty of various ages, the University offers two main options.

Faculty members who retire can keep working — paid with a grant — at the University, advising new faculty members and allowing their research to stay within the school.

The University’s phased retirement option, which allows faculty members to slowly disengage from the school, helps administrators predict when a professor may retire. The policy allows faculty to work less than full time for up to five years and still receive full benefits. 

Assistant Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Ole Gram  said different colleges within the University have different means of handling coming retirements and that each department is affected by departures differently, depending on its size. 

“It’s very much a local phenomenon,” Gram said. “So even if there are very few retirements in a particular year, if all those retirements happen to be in [one department], we may have a problem.”

The College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences — where the average age of faculty members is about 54 and the problem is more pronounced — plans for faculty members to retire by age 70 and bases its 10-year retirement projections on that number, said CFANS Communications Director Becky Beyers. 

Most other colleges go off of the number of faculty members who have indicated that they will retire in the future, Gram said. 

“At the Twin Cities campus, we have about 2,500 tenure-track faculty. Unless [the retirees] are all concentrated in a few specific areas, it’s not a University-wide problem,” Ropers-Huilman said. 

To adhere to discrimination laws, the University has no mandatory retirement age, Gram said. 

Departments consider if there is an imbalance between the amount of younger, part-time faculty members and older members that have indicated they plan to retire soon. If a large number of upcoming retires is expected, the department may hire younger faculty members, Gram said. 

On a University-wide level, the school is competitive in attracting younger professionals to replace those who retire, Gram said. 

“Are there enough Ph.Ds in the United States and in the world, young ones who are educated and who we can compete for? And the answer is, overall, yes,” Gram said. 

Ropers-Huilman said that along with teaching and research experience, retiring professors take with them a mastery of how the University operates. 

“Of course we lose institutional knowledge,” Ropers-Huilman said. “I think some of the people who work in faculty governance … have become experts in finance in higher education. And when we lose them, we do lose something substantial.” 

Still, she said, the losses are also opportunities for different departments to rethink their focuses and hire people who can revitalize their specific academic areas. 

“The University of Minnesota is a place where a lot of people want to come and want to work,” she said. “When people retire, it’s both a loss and, if the person is able to be replaced, an opportunity.”