Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Universities, mandatory retirement, and the baby boom

Today's Globe and Mail ran another editorial today about the issue of mandatory retirement at age 65, specificially where university professors at U of T are concerned. (I would give you the link, but the Globe only allows online subscribers access to their editorials).

Their lines of argumentation are pretty standard: mandatory retirement was ok when it made way for younger professors, and tenure compensated for this with job security. But now, it forces people to retire when they are still productive (there is a special feature in the Careers section on an 86-year old psychology prof at McGill - in Quebec where there is no mandatory retirement). They point to Einstein, still lucid at 76, and urge the reader to "consider the loss to society of so many capable and talented older people forced into retirement before they are ready."

Then the argument switches into the latest in-vogue argument for abolishing mandatory retirement: demographic change. Recent articles always raise "the issue of how to fill all the available teaching positions, as the baby-boom generation hits retierement age in the next 15 years." This last point is central to pretty much everything I have read recently, and seems to me, more than anything else, to be at the crux of the latest "crisis" over mandatory retirement.

Baby boomers don't want to retire. And so they're going to use their demographic clout to continue to jam up a system long oversaturated by their numbers, claiming that it would be impossible to fill their jobs. This is self-serving hokum, at least in my discipline. For most of the 90s, there were, on average, maybe 1-2 new positions per year opening up in Canadian history - for all the PhD graduates to compete for. Things have improved recently - a quick peek shows that there were about 7 open positions in 2002-03, 8 in 2003-04, and 10 in 2004-05. Mind you, these do not add up to 25 new positions - at least 4 of these that I know of were filled by lateral movement of an existing junior professor - we're just shuffling the deck here. I also know that the average new hire in my field has been out of their PhD for 4 years, teaching sessional courses and trying to otherwise eke out a living. You cannot make a hiring short list at most universities without having a book deal.

Compare this to the situation when most baby boomer professors were hired. Many of them - including my own supervisor and several of my other professors - had not even completed their PhD when they were hired. Their first books appeared years after they had been hired - and in many cases after they had already been promoted to the rank of Associate Professor. This talk of a crisis seems a wee bit exagerated, at least in my discipline. There are dozens of qualified people, eager to get into the field, with more added every year from PhD programs. (And lest I be accused of discussing a dead discipline, in most universities, history enrollments are growing faster than those of any other discipline in the humanities, and at the same rate as the social sciences).

Apart from the "baby boom" glut argument, which you can clearly see I think is overrated, there is a good case to be made for allowing some professors to continue to teach and research with the university past the age of 65. But tenure makes this a tricky egg to crack. I don't think that a professor should be allowed to continue to draw their hefty full professor salary (often 2.5 times that of a new hire) indefinitely, if their productivity doesn't warrant it, particularly once they reach the age of 65. Many professors do not keep up an active research program, continue to supervise graduate students, and generally contribute to academia consistently once they reach a certain point in their career. What benefit is there to society of allowing them to maintain their job (and salary) permanently? Very little, I would argue.

Indeed, this is why universities have the category of Emeritus Professor. This allows them to keep their top-notch professors on staff past the age of mandatory retirement. Perhaps the responsibilities and salary which accompany this rank could be retooled somewhat, but there is much to be said for universities being given the opportunity to essentially "re-hire" their top professors after age 65. It weeds out the less productive ones, and allows the excellent to stay.

I do think that there needs to be a mechanism for good professors to be allowed to continue as members of the university when they are older, but still productive, but a simple abolition of mandatory retirement without changing the tenure system is a very bad idea.

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