How to support faculty approaching retirement

Saying goodbye to a career in academia can be tough. Retirement can be a financially and emotionally fraught transition, writes Deborah Fitzgerald, a professor of the history of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Faculty members who put off financial planning may end up with limited retirement options. And some professors struggle to accept that retirement may mean losing their identity as a scholar or a sense of belonging on campus, writes Fitzgerald in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But retirement is a natural part of academic life, she writes. Young scholars bring new energy and ideas to a department. If senior faculty choose not to retire, junior professors can’t be hired and "the intellectual balance of a department goes out of whack," argues Fitzgerald. Keeping people in seat comes at a cost, especially as higher education budgets shrink and institutions increasingly seek younger and more diverse instructors.

After more than 30 years as an academic, Fitzgerald plans to retire in five years at the age of 70. As Fitzgerald prepares for her own retirement, she outlines several ways institutions can support professors approaching this milestone.

Talk about retirement options early on. Don't wait until faculty turn 65 to talk about retirement plans, advises Fitzgerald. Frequent retirement conversations can help professors weigh their options and financially prepare for retirement. Remember that retirement poses different obstacles for everyone, she adds. Department heads and faculty members should work together to tailor retirement plans to individual concerns and needs.

Encourage retired professors to get involved on campus. Include retired faculty members in academic activities (except for voting, hiring, or policy-making), suggests Fitzgerald. Faculty emeriti who serve on committees or act as student mentors can continue to contribute to the university and lighten the load for mid-career faculty.

Give them a space on campus. If there's space on campus, set up a communal office for retired faculty, Fitzgerald suggests. Faculty members are often reluctant to retire because they fear losing a place to go, she notes. An open office reserved for faculty emeriti to work or read with their colleagues can help ease that concern, she argues.

As Fitzgerald approaches 70, she plans to teach less, write more, and volunteer for more interesting committees. This kind of "wind-down" plan is a great way for academics to enjoy their last years on campus, notes Fitzgerald.

Many colleges and universities offer tenured faculty the opportunity to wind down their teaching through a phased-retirement option. In 2008, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) launched the Pathways to Retirement Program, which helps faculty members navigate the road to retirement and offers benefits such as reduced course loads and continued research support. Carole Goldberg, UCLA's former vice chancellor for academic personnel, worked to publicize the program and create various perks that help faculty emeriti retain some connection to campus. Ten pathway agreements were signed in 2011—and that number grew to 34 in 2015 and 48 in 2016.

"The most important thing was to reconceptualize retirement not as an end of the relationship but as a reconfiguration of faculty members' relationship with the university," Goldberg told the Chronicle in 2016.

The trend is catching on at other institutions. Faculty emeriti at the University of Southern California are invited to social events, while those at Cleveland State University can participate in a faculty group for retirees (Fitzgerald, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/30/18).


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