PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999
Out To Pasture?

By J.J. Thompson

Illustration by John BerryProfessor Franz Brotzen celebrated his 70th birthday in 1986, but what he didn't celebrate was his forced retirement from Rice University, where he was a professor of mechanical engineering and material science.

"It wasn't by choice," he says. It was by law. Ironically for Brotzen, 1986 was the same year in which amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act made mandatory retirement illegal. But because college and university administrators were concerned that too many tenured faculty would choose to continue in their academic positions, according to the American Association of University Professors, an exemption was added that allowed higher education institutions to decide whether to force retirement at age 70. They could do so until December 31, 1993, at which point faculty became free to retire at any age they wanted.

Happily, Brotzen remained at Rice as an emeritus professor, but if he had been only one year younger, he could have stayed for the next decade or so on the university's engineering faculty in a full-time position, just as he's watched younger faculty members do at institutions across the country.

Indeed, the lack of a mandatory retirement age has created an interesting situation for many engineering schools. An unprecedented number of professors are just now reaching the age when people usually think about retiring. Not everyone will want to call it quits, of course, but those who haven't kept up with the latest in technology might not fit in. Some may even be encouraged to leave.

Graying of Academia

"There was a burst of hiring back in the '60s," says C. Sidney Burrus, engineering dean at Rice. That's when the pickings were good for fresh, young graduates because a great many engineering schools were busily introducing graduate programs, expanding undergraduate departments, enjoying increased enrollments—and thus working hard to increase their faculty to meet all these demands. "Those people first hired in the '60s are now reaching the traditional retirement age," Burrus explains.

The problems created by this situation, especially that of making room for new faces and, more important, new knowledge and ideas on the faculty, can be especially pronounced for engineering schools, deans say. For while the lack of a mandatory retirement age is a factor in the faculty makeup of disciplines all across the university, Burrus acknowledges, "it ends up being more of a problem in engineering because technology changes more rapidly than issues in humanities and science do."

While Burrus is quick to add, "I realize that that's not a noncontroversial comment," he explains that "an effective engineering professor has to be learning new things more rapidly than in any other discipline."

Lyle D. Feisel, engineering dean at the State University of New York at Binghamton, agrees. "The field is changing so rapidly. Because of that, you have to either put more effort into seeing to it that [faculty members] stay abreast of new technology, or you have to change the people on your faculty," he says. Hence, the dilemma.

Deans know that fulfilling teaching and research obligations often preclude professors from being able to keep up with all the changes in their fields. A few are able to, Feisel says, but many departments depend on the cutting-edge knowledge they add with new, often just-out-of-graduate-school hires.

Because the market is not terribly tight right now, what with the recent upswing in engineering enrollments, engineering deans such as William R. Schowalter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have so far faced little difficulty in maintaining a healthy balance between new blood and valued experience. "What we are going to do with all these old geezers who won't retire is not something I worry about," Schowalter says.

Pressed for Space

The dilemma he does fret over, and one that he suspects is present at most research-intensive universities, is finding enough space for everyone. For instance, Schowalter says, suppose a faculty member retires but still churns out excellent research and commands top-dollar grants. "They continue to obtain on a competitive basis government funding for research, they continue to work with graduate students, continue to publish, and continue to contribute to the school," he hypothesizes. Therefore, they are allowed to maintain a research presence at the university. "You're delighted to have them stay on," he says, "but the problem this poses is that they occupy a large amount of research space. On the books, you see a professor has retired, but in terms of the real estate, you have to provide for new faculty and no space has been vacated. It's used well, but it makes it hard to bring in and give a new person a lab."

Schowalter says the retirement rate among his faculty of 400 at Illinois has been relatively steady for years, with some staying on well past 65 and others choosing to start a new life years earlier. He had, however, prepared himself to lose a good many professors a few years ago when the state legislature considered, but never passed, several retirement incentive packages.

"It was very clear that if some of the sweeteners had gone through, a rash of retirements would have occurred," he says. There's no doubt that incentive packages are used by a number of institutions. One of the most notable is the University of California at Berkeley, which wielded them to chisel out slots for younger faculty a few years ago when the California system ran out of money.

According to the AAUP, Title IX-D of the 1998 Higher Education Act allows higher education institutions to offer voluntary retirement incentive plans to tenured faculty. The incentives can be reduced or terminated at a certain age, and the benefits offered in a package must be in addition to any retirement or severance benefits offered generally to similar employees within the preceding year.

While the impetus for using retirement incentives in California was largely financial, "most private universities and a lot of top-tier state universities are more concerned with the intellectual side than with financial reasons" for encouraging faculty retirement, Rice's Burrus says.

Rice, for instance, recently offered a retirement package "that provided a certain amount of money and benefits if the people would retire in a certain time period," Burrus says. "We got people to retire at about the rate we wanted them to," opening up positions for junior faculty who brought plenty of savvy in the new technologies. "But if a package looks too attractive, you can lose too many people," he warns.

Separation AnxietyIllustration by John Berry

Retirement can be unattractive to faculty members for a number of reasons, deans say. In addition to the lost salary and, at some institutions, concerns about the cost of continued medical coverage, many faculty members cringe at the thought of leaving academic life.

Therefore, many universities find ways to allow these people to remain connected to the institution. Rice, for instance, provides office space and access to the library and computer system.

At SUNY-Binghamton, if someone retires as a Bartle professor, they can stay on in a reduced capacity for several additional years. In this position, which was named for the school's first president, professors still have a full appointment, but at 20 percent pay. They may also teach a course. "It was a surprise to me that this arrangement has been very important to a lot of people," he says. "Once this Bartle professorship was invented, they took retirement where before they weren't interested. They didn't want to lose that identity as a professor or sever those ties with the institution."

Feisel noted that his school has experienced about a half dozen retirements in the last couple of years, though that boom follows a slew of years with no retirements at all. "I would say that most of the people who are retiring are around 70," he says. "Some are a little younger than that, but it's not as though when they reach 65, they leave."

Numerous studies have found that not only are people living longer, but they are healthier and often happier in later years than ever before. See "New Age for the Elderly," page 16) So it's not surprising that so many of these older faculty members loathe the idea of leaving the work they've relished for 30 to 40 years. Some get bitter, Burrus says, and feel that the world has rushed off and left them behind.

"I think the majority, though, eventually get tired and want a slower-paced existence," he says. "They may want to teach an undergraduate course or two that does not require the latest technology. They can be a real service to the university." Others, he adds, are ready to move on and do other things. Consulting, for instance, or traveling.

Profoundly Wise

There are a few older educators—such as Brotzen—that Burrus considers to be sages. Even as an emeritus professor, Brotzen has continued his research and teaching activities for most of the last 13 years. Only recently, in fact, has he given up his graduate student research assistants and his industrial research grants from such entities as Texas Instruments.

"At age 83, I felt I couldn't commit to four more years of research in good conscience," he says. Indeed, Burrus calls Brotzen one of those people you want to keep, not because of his history of valuable contributions to the school, but because of his continued worthy service.

Still, with so much technology to keep up with, it is harder to be a sage these days, particularly in engineering. No matter how old you are.


    J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas