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September-October 2012

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Making Emeritus Matter

What is an emeritus professor? The emeritus role means different things at different colleges and universities, but generally it has an elusive, ambiguous quality. It may simply mean that a professor has retired with an honorific title acknowledging many years of service to an institution. Or it may mean that a senior professor has transitioned to a new phase of an academic career, moving from full participation in all faculty roles to modified or scaled-down participation, with more flexibility to choose how he or she stays involved and contributes to the academy. An emeritus professor may be a respected professional elder who remains active in research, occasionally teaches, and mentors students and junior colleagues. Alternatively, emeritus status may be a symbolic but hollow honor that provides no clearly defined rights, responsibilities, or professional opportunities.

This article explores significant efforts across the United States to make emeritus status meaningful. More importantly, it examines diverse initiatives to provide retired professors with continuing learning opportunities, a clear identity, and ways to remain productive and purposeful members of their academic communities.

In July 2011, the American Council on Education convened a meeting of 50 higher education institutions to discuss “how to support soon-to-retire faculty members and help them maintain meaningful connections to the institutions where they built their careers” (June, 2011). This meeting, sponsored by one of higher education's most influential associations, signals the growing interest in the later stages of academic life—both before and after retirement.

A variety of forces are generating interest in what emeritus status means—the same that are behind the growth of retired and emeritus faculty organizations at institutions across the US. The first is sheer numbers of faculty collecting at the exit door. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that colleges and universities are confronted with an aging professoriate. At some institutions, as many as one-third of professors are 60 or older (June, 2012).

Whether those aging professors go through the door, an exit that became voluntary with the abolition of a mandatory retirement age in 1994, may have to do with what they see waiting for them on the other side. A number of institutions thus decided to make emeritus status more attractive in order to maintain a continuing flow of talent into the institution (Ehrenberg, Matier, & Fontanella, 2001). If universities and colleges wish to hire new faculty members in a time of slow growth, some senior faculty members will need to leave their posts to make room for new colleagues.

Psychological and social forces may slow this flow significantly. Many professors fear losing their core identity when they retire. They are not eager to confront the question, “Who am I when I am no longer an academic or have no institutional home?” When there are no clear answers to these social and psychological questions, the consequence may be delayed retirement. Writing on retirement incentives, Keefe (2001) says that “lifestyle and self-esteem factors often are as important to a retirement plan's success as the cash incentives” the plan offers (p. 128).

An increasing life span enables many faculty members to remain engaged in academic life well beyond the normal retirement age of 65 to 70. Many desire to continue an intellectual life, a connection with their institution and colleagues, and their work with students. And a host of technological advancements have enabled them to remain productively engaged in teaching, scholarship, and institutional affairs even when they no longer come to campus daily or even live in the same state or region of the country.

The Study

There is little doubt the academic profession is in the midst of a major transformation. Books like Schuster and Finkelstein's The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (2006) and Gappa, Austin, and Trice's, Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education's Strategic Imperative (2007) demonstrate that traditional academic structures and career patterns are proving inadequate and are rapidly changing. In this context of reassessment, we thought it was time to look closely at emeritus status and recent initiatives to enhance this phase of the academic career.

To do this we conducted a Web-based nationwide search for emeritus and retired-faculty organizations (RFOs). RFOs go by many different names, such as association, council, or college. We looked exclusively at organizations with a Web presence, assuming that most well-established programs would use the Internet to define their roles and communicate with their key constituents.

We did not review institutions' human resource policies pertaining to faculty retirement, since the intent of this study was to go beyond understanding the standard compensation and benefits provided to emeritus faculty. Our goal instead was to answer three primary questions:

What efforts are in place through RFOs to make emeritus status matter? We were seeking evidence that the emeritus stage of faculty life can have clear meaning and substance and be a purposeful and fulfilling extension of academic life. We wanted to identify the most common forms of support and professional opportunities publicized by RFOs to enable emeritus professors' continued learning; engagement with their fields and institutions; and service that benefits them, their institutions, or the larger society.

What is propelling the establishment of these organizations? Do senior professors band together to start RFOs, or do senior administrators take the initiative to support their long-serving professors and make emeritus status more attractive? We also examined the starting dates and evolution of RFOs to determine if they are growing in number and diversifying their roles.

What does the growth of RFOs suggest about the academic profession and faculty careers in the early 21st century? Are we seeing an extension of the academic career that parallels the growing lifespan of Americans? Are initiatives to make emeritus status more meaningful and attractive an effective way to make room for new professors to enter the academy?

Our search yielded 180 organizations designed to support emeritus and retired faculty (some of which also include retired administrators and staff, and spouses or partners). A partial list of RFOs with their URLs can be found in Table 1. We conducted a content analysis of each organization's Website, reviewing the purpose, history, activities, and services provided. This review identified a wide range of activities and services, which we condensed into a set of common categories to enhance understanding of these initiatives.


Table: Table 1. Sample Retired-Faculty Organizations by Basic Carnegie Classification

Research Institutions (very high activity)

   Cornell University (http://www.emeritus.cornell.edu/)

   Indiana University (http://www.indiana.edu/ emeriti/)

   Purdue University (http://www.purdue.edu/retirees/)

   UMass Amherst (http://www.umass.edu/retiredfaculty/)

   University of Southern California (http://emeriti.usc.edu/)

Research Institutions (high activity)

   Boston College (http://www.bc.edu/content/bc/sites/retiredfaculty.html)

   Oklahoma State University (http://www.okstate.edu/emeriti/)

   Southern Methodist University (http://smu.edu/retiredfaculty/)

   University of Montana (http://www.umt.edu/Retirees/)

   UT San Antonio (http://provost.utsa.edu/rfa/)

Master's Institutions

   Central Washington University (http://www.cwu.edu/~cwura/)

   California State University-Fullerton (http://www.fullerton.edu/emeriti/)

   James Madison University (http://www.jmu.edu/emeriti/)

   San Francisco State University (http://www.sfsu.edu/~retire/index.html)

   SUNY-Oswego (http://www.oswego.edu/emeriti.html)

Baccalaureate Institutions

   Bryn Mawr College (http://brynmawr.edu/emeritus/index.html)

   University of Minnesota-Morris (http://ummra.morris.umn.edu/)

   Wesleyan University (http://www.wesleyan.edu/waschcenter/index.html)

Special-Focus Institutions

   UC-San Francisco (http://retirees.ucsf.edu/retirees/home.html)

   University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (http://rwjms.umdnj.edu/faculty/retired_faculty/about.html)

   UT-Houston (http://www.uthro.org/)

Selected to provide a sample of well-developed RFOs from varied Carnegie classifications from public and private institutions and a range of geographic locations.



The Results

Based on our review, we identified four common purposes for RFOs:

  • to offer retired faculty continued opportunities for learning;

  • to maintain emeritus faculty's social connections and their ties to the institution;

  • to support their continued academic engagement and scholarly productivity; and

  • to provide emeriti with opportunities for service to the university, community, or larger society.

In order to fulfill these common purposes, these organizations offer a variety of resources such as space and facilities, communication channels, retirement information, and miscellaneous other support and opportunities.

Learning Opportunities

Given the nature of the academic career, it is not surprising that many RFOs offer varied types of learning opportunities for their members. These include seminars and guest speakers on academic and current issues, opportunities to audit collegiate courses, cultural excursions to places such as museums and orchestras, and/or participation in international travel—all designed to allow members to continue to learn about new topics, engage in academic conversations, and remain intellectually fit.

For example, Cornell University's RFO has a yearlong lecture series, with monthly speakers discussing various topics such as elections analysis, Cornell history, and the origins of the Internet. Many of these lectures are recorded and stored online for future viewing for those members who cannot attend in person.

Emory University's RFO, through the support of a generous donation, hosts an annual lecture entitled “Creativity in Later Life” as part of its Sheth Distinguished Lecture program. And Oklahoma State's retired faculty regularly get off campus to take monthly “Travel and Behind the Scenes” cultural tours, which include day-long bus trips to local cultural attractions.

Social Opportunities

Another major objective of RFOs is helping retired faculty maintain social connections with colleagues. These include activities such as breakfast or lunch meetings, coffee-hour discussions, and recreational activities such as hiking trips or golf leagues. Some of these activities are formal—for example, an annual gathering of retired Portland State faculty hosted by the university's president—while others are more informal, including drop-by gatherings once a month at a local cafe hosted by Central Washington University's RFO.

Many of these activities are intended to provide an outlet for retired faculty to pursue mutual interests with colleagues through the formation of small interest groups centered around topics ranging from playing cards to exercise to financial investing. Clemson's RFO offers a unique social opportunity through its annual Emeritus Day on campus, which brings retired faculty back to campus for a chance to socialize and learn about new initiatives at the university. It concludes with a luncheon and faculty meeting.

Research and Scholarship Support

Many retired-faculty organizations support the continued scholarly work of their members. While monetary support is not the norm, some organizations and/or the institutions they are affiliated with are able to provide financial resources to facilitate the continuation of research and scholarly activities.

San Francisco State University's RFO, for instance, provides a limited number of travel grants of up to $500 for individuals participating in career-related travel. Georgetown University's RFO works with the university's graduate school to offer $400 research grants on a competitive basis to support retired-faculty research projects. Cornell University guarantees each of its emeritus faculty members $2,000 per year for five years for professional-development activities.

Some organizations also provide non-monetary support for the continuation of research and scholarly work. For example, Columbia University dedicates a portion of its RFO Website to help facilitate the exchange of scholarly ideas and information. The University of Colorado RFO provides its members with a listing of ongoing research projects in need of volunteers and participants. The RFO at Arizona State provides a wide range of non-monetary assistance, including hosting an annual research symposium showcasing the work of retired faculty, publishing its own journal containing both scholarly and creative submissions, and offering stylistic and editorial support to retired faculty who are preparing manuscripts.

Service Opportunities

University Service. While many RFOs focus on providing service to retired faculty, many also provide opportunities for these faculty to give back to their institutions—opportunities that include volunteering at campus events, mentoring new professors or students, continuing to participate in university governance and committee activities, or remaining engaged in some teaching duties.

California State-Dominguez Hills' RFO lists a full slate of university-related volunteer opportunities for its members. Similarly, the University of Southern California's (USC's) RFO maintains a system called “Trojan Encore” to help connect retired faculty with offices in need of part-time or short-term help. Other RFOs play a role in institutional governance. For example, at Michigan State University the RFO maintains seats on both the Faculty Council and Academic Council.

Continued engagement with teaching and mentoring is another way for retired faculty to remain involved. The University of Georgia's Emeriti Scholars Program provides retired faculty with an opportunity to teach and mentor students within the university's honors program. The RFO at Boston College enables retired faculty to travel to alumni gatherings and speak as special lecturers at various events around the country. Boston College also offers a unique opportunity for retired faculty to mentor international graduate students.

Along with connecting emeriti to volunteer, teaching, and mentoring opportunities, some RFOs provide scholarships to current students. Pasadena City College's RFO has provided 38 student scholarships totaling $17,400 since 2003 with funds collected from organization members. Some organizations also help support university development initiatives: At California State-Fullerton, the RFO created an endowment fund to help build the library's collections.

Community Service. Some RFOs provide emeriti faculty with a chance to engage in community service. Arizona State's RFO organizes teaching opportunities in the community and connects faculty experts with K–12 partners to provide consultation on topics such as developing new teaching strategies and providing professional-development services. Opportunities also exist for retired faculty to volunteer at local hospitals, nonprofit associations, and other service entities within the community. The RFO at the University of Minnesota-Morris maintains its own center specifically to connect retirees with community volunteer opportunities.

To fulfill these purposes, RFOs provide resources of various kinds:

Space and Facilities

Access to space and facilities on campus can help serve multiple educational, social, and scholarly purposes for retired faculty. Many organizations work with their institutions to provide continued access to on-campus facilities such as the library and computer center, which can help retired faculty remain engaged with current literature and pursue their scholarly pursuits.

Meeting rooms and conference centers on campus can be venues for various events, such as luncheons and guest speakers, in which retired faculty maintain social connections. Some organizations also provide work and office space for retired faculty. North Carolina State University reserves a “reading room” in the library for them. Other organizations dedicate entire buildings and centers to the use of emeriti (often these are funded through generous donations). Examples include Indiana University's Emeriti House, Yale's Henry Koerner Center, and Wesleyan's Wasch Center.

Communications Channels

One common way organizations help retired faculty stay connected to each other and to their institutions is through regular communication outlets. These may include internal publications created by the RFOs and distributed to members or institutional ones such as student newspapers and alumni magazines distributed to retired faculty by the university.

Newsletters help keep members informed about upcoming events, members' activities, and pertinent issues related to retirement. At Penn State, for example, the RFO publishes three newsletters each year, one sent out nationally and two sent only to local members. Typically, the national newsletter contains detailed information about retirement issues and organization services, whereas the local newsletter focuses more on previous and upcoming activities.

Retirement Information

Numerous organizations offer information during the retirement transition phase and thereafter. Many of the educational opportunities offered to retired faculty through seminars and guest speakers focus on issues such as health and wellness, finances, and maintaining an active lifestyle.

The University of Washington RFO specifically offers a series of seminars focused on addressing issues that arise throughout retirement, such as adjusting investments in retirement and travel tips for older adults. Others, such as Cleveland State's, provide handbooks and comprehensive retirement guides to members. The California State University RFO provides its campuses' retired faculty with a special guide that provides important information to consider following the passing of a spouse or partner. The RFO at Northern Illinois University works with the university's Wellness Office to offer counseling services to members on topics such as adjusting to retirement, financial problems, and losing a loved one.

Miscellaneous Support and Opportunities

Given the large number of RFOs in existence, there are many additional services offered to retired faculty that do not fit neatly into one of the previous categories. For example, many organizations work with their institutions to secure discounts for their members for both on- and off-campus facilities and businesses. Many of these discounts are related to education, such as the ability to take community courses at a discount or receive a discount at the university bookstore.

Another common service is keeping members abreast of current legislative issues affecting various aspects of retirement such as pensions and health care. Some organizations even plan lobbying trips on these issues.

Other services and forms of support are less common than discounts or government advocacy. Several RFOs provide awards, usually non-monetary, to faculty, honoring their service and contributions to the university during their retirement years. Purdue's RFO, in conjunction with the President's Office, annually honors one campus unit with a $2,500 prize for being the most supportive of retired faculty. Another service Penn State's RFO provides is an emergency financial assistance fund maintained through retiree donations. It has helped provide more than $25,000 to retired faculty facing financial emergencies.

Some organizations offer activities and services from each of the categories we identified, while others only offer them from one or two of the categories. Additionally, some of the categories of activities and services are more common than others. Learning and social opportunities, access to space and facilities, varied forms of communications, and miscellaneous services are each offered at more than 100 of the 180 organizations we studied. Research and scholarly support, retirement information, and university service opportunities are less common. Organized community-service activities are the least common among RFOs.

Organizations do not need to provide every activity and service described in this article to be effective. Offering an appropriate variety, however, can help organizations meet the common purposes for forming RFOs.

Initiation and Support of RFOS

RFOs are initiated in a variety of ways. The idea to form most of the organizations we studied came from a small group of retired faculty, which typically approached various administrators or governance bodies (e.g., presidents, provosts, academic senates) for support and approval, as required by each institution's governance system. At some institutions, however (for instance, Georgia State and Florida State), senior administrators developed the idea to form a RFO and served as the driving force behind their organizations' formation. There is often a strong working relationship between the faculty and administration in forming RFOs.

Once RFOs are formed, most collect minimal dues. While many organizations rely heavily upon members' volunteering their time to support the governance and activities of the organization, some receive support from their institutions.

That support takes many forms, including the use of space on campus and clerical and administrative help. The latter typically comes from the provost's office, human resources, or alumni and development offices. Most institutions simply add these tasks to the ones already performed by university employees, but some institutions, such as UC-Berkeley, provide their RFOs with full-time staff and student employees.

The Evolution of RFOS

Of the 180 organizations we reviewed, 90 listed a founding date that ranged from USC's establishment in 1949 to the University of Montana and UT San Antonio's founding in 2011. But most organizations dedicated to emeritus and retired faculty do not have a long history. Of the RFOs that publicize their founding dates, almost one-third (29) have been established since 2000. This pattern suggests that formal organizations to support retired faculty are a growing trend in higher education.

At the time of their founding, many of these organizations did not offer anywhere near the number of activities and services they currently provide. In fact, many were formed solely as a means to lobby their college and university administration and/or state governments concerning retirement benefits. Once in existence, however, these organizations began to offer more services and even collaborate in providing them.

The State University of New York (SUNY) and California State University systems, for example, each maintain organizations dedicated to helping coordinate individual campus RFOs, share best practices, and offer additional services on top of those offered by individual campuses. There is even a national organization, the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education (AROHE), formally created in 2002, dedicated to improving the quality of life for retired faculty. AROHE organizes bi-annual conferences for the sharing of information among member organizations.

The growth of RFOs has not been even across all types of higher education institutions. Given that many of these organizations began as lobbying arms for communication with state governments, it is not surprising that 160 of the 180 organizations reviewed are from public institutions. Also, given the financial resources that can be involved in maintaining these organizations (minimal as they may be), it is also not surprising that a plurality (59) of these organizations exist at universities with a very high research profile, as designated by their Carnegie Classification. However, RFOs also exist at small and large master's-level institutions, liberal arts colleges, and special-focus institutions.

Assessment

Retired-faculty organizations are increasing in number because they address important faculty career concerns and significant human resource challenges confronting many colleges and universities. But while the purposes of RFOs are commendable, in a time of funding constraints it is necessary to document their impact and cost effectiveness.

Key questions should guide efforts to assess the performance and value RFOs:

  • How do RFOs influence senior professors' views of retirement?

  • Are RFOs increasing early or traditional-age (65–70) retirements?

  • What other benefits do RFOs provide their institutions?

  • Do RFOs save their institutions money?

  • What is the return on funds invested in RFOs?

  • How have RFOs influenced the well-being of emeriti professors and the institutional community?

RFOs and the institutions they serve should regularly monitor levels of emeritus faculty participation, organizational impact, and the costs of these organizations. But it is especially important to study how RFOs affect retirement decisions and whether they actually facilitate the flow of new faculty talent into colleges and universities.

Systematic, routine assessment of RFOs can also identify operational problems or underperformance that should be addressed in order to enhance their value, as well as justify continued or increased investment in them. Careful assessment is needed to help RFOs become valued components of a larger academic personnel system designed to support the performance of faculty across their careers and maintain flexible, responsive colleges and universities in a time of rapid change.

Our findings suggest that emeritus status does matter in a growing number of colleges and universities, thanks to the RFOs they have established. These organizations vary with the culture, traditions, size, and resources of their institutions. What they have in common is enhancing opportunities for retired faculty to maintain a professional identity, remain connected to their institutions, and stay engaged intellectually and socially. Forty-five years ago, Roman and Taietz (1967) wrote of emeritus professors, “When opportunity structures are provided by the organization, a large proportion of individuals take advantage of the opportunity and remain engaged and continue both instrumental and socio-emotional patterns that existed previous to retirement” (p. 151).

Increased opportunities for retired faculty have been triggered recently by coalescing forces, including longer lifespans, the abolition of mandatory retirement, and the inability of many institutions to continue growing and changing simply by adding more faculty. To different degrees, the RFOs we studied—by providing retired faculty with opportunities for learning; meaningful engagement as teachers, scholars, and consultants; intergenerational mentoring; and a continued sense of belonging—can help make retirement thinkable for faculty who are reluctant to relinquish their professional identities.

To be sure, investment in RFOs comes at a cost. The more comprehensive organizations usually depend on some institutional support, which often means modest financial subsidies, space, and some staff time. But while some colleges and universities may not have the resources to maintain their own RFOs, it may be feasible for smaller colleges and universities to form alliances and combine resources to offer faculty in a geographic area meaningful services and activities in retirement.

We believe there is a compelling case for making emeritus status matter, even (and perhaps especially) in a time of restricted resources. Healthy, productive professors deserve the opportunity to continue learning and serving even while they make way for new colleagues to enter the profession, and colleges and universities can benefit from the teaching, mentoring, and many forms of service emeritus faculty can continue to provide. We agree with the case Robert Diamond and Merle Allshouse made in “Utilizing America's Most Wasted Resource” (2007): “In most university and college communities there is a growing pool of talented retired or transitioning individuals who would like nothing more than to make a difference by using their knowledge and experience to improve their communities and institutions while continuing the process of their own personal development.”

Making emeritus status matter can make retirement more meaningful and more attractive, thus facilitating a continuing flow of talent through colleges and universities. The future vitality of the academic profession and the higher education enterprise will depend in part on how well we treat faculty members who have served their institutions for many years and still have much to contribute.

Resources

1. Diamond, R. M. and Allshouse, M. F. (April 6 2007) Utilizing America's most wasted resource.. Inside Higher Education., Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/04/06/diamond

2. Ehrenberg, R. G., Matier, M. W. and Fontanella, D. Clark, R. L. and Hammond, P. B. (eds) (2001) Cornell confronts the end of mandatory retirement.. To retire or not? Retirement policy and practice in higher education, pp. 81-105. University of Pennsylvania Press., Philadelphia, PA.

3. Gappa, J. M., Austin, A. E. and Trice, A. G. (2007) Rethinking faculty work: Higher education's strategic imperative., Jossey-Bass., San Francisco, CA.

4. June, A. W. (July 12 2011) College leaders discuss one last faculty transition: Retirement.. Chronicle of Higher Education., Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/College-Leaders-Discuss-One/128190/

5. June, A. W. (March 23 2012) Aging professors create a faculty bottleneck.. Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Professors-Are-Graying-and/131226/

6. Keefe, J. Clark, R. L. and Hammond, P. B. (eds) (2001) Intangible and tangible retirement incentives.. To retire or not? Retirement policy and practice in higher education, pp. 128-137. University of Pennsylvania Press., Philadelphia, PA.

7. Roman, P. and Taietz, P. (1967) Organizational structure and disengagement: The emeritus professor. Gerontologist 7:3, pp. 147-152.

8. Schuster, J. H. and Finkelstein, M. J. (2006) The American faculty: The restructuring of academic work and careers., The Johns Hopkins University Press., Baltimore, MD.

Roger G. Baldwin (rbaldwin@msu.edu) is a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University. His scholarship focuses on academic career issues, faculty professional development needs and strategies, and changing conditions in the academic workplace.

Michael J. Zeig (zeigmich@msu.edu) is a graduate research assistant at Michigan State in the higher, adult, and lifelong education doctoral program. He was previously employed in the Michigan Governor's Office (2008–2010), where he worked with university trustee appointments and represented the governor on the State Board of Education.

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