The Merits of Emeriti

Providing campus community to retired faculty.
By Seth Matthew Fishman

The silver tide of faculty retirement continues to ebb and flow. While much of today’s scholarship on faculty retirement focuses on the financial implications for colleges and universities, arguing that older faculty members clog up the faculty pipeline, cost more in salary and benefits, and are ineffective teachers who fear technology, little research addresses the retired faculty member’s experience.

In late 2009, during the height of the financial recession, I interviewed fourteen emeritus faculty members (four women and ten men) who had been retired for two to five years. The interviewees, whose average age was sixty-eight, retired from a wide range of academic disciplines within the same large Midwestern public institution. Several of the interviewees had been professors for more than forty years, and a few had held administrative appointments, such as department head or dean.

To initiate the interviews, I sent the faculty members an e-mail invitation to participate in my study. I received my first acceptance, by smartphone, within thirty minutes of sending the invitation.

I asked the emeriti about their overall retirement experience: the decisions they made, their level of satisfaction in retirement, their level of involvement with their former institution, how they felt about their retirement perquisites, what they missed about being a professor, and what retirement advice they would give current faculty members. To protect anonymity, the study participants selected pseudonyms, and I placed their home departments in general college categories.

“No One Owns My Time”

That statement from Vega (education) reflects the retired faculty members’ sense of liberation from full schedules, long meetings, and commutes to and from work. Some confronted unexpected challenges, however. For example, some emeriti faced personal health problems, including one situation where the faculty member was forced into retirement by serious health issues. Others became concerned about their investments because of the recession and, while feeling financially secure, worried they would have to reevaluate their future finances. The process of aging itself was also a major unexpected transition. While Andy (arts and humanities) understood the physical changes that are associated with aging, he did not anticipate what his doctor called the “diseases of the seventh decade.” When he better understood some of his limitations, he was able to readjust. For example, going up and down stairs was becoming more challenging, so when he renovated his basement studio, he added a bathroom and better stair railings.

Despite a rocky entry into retirement for some, the emeriti maintained active and vigorous lifestyles in retirement. Many engaged in different forms of academic activities, such as authoring books, consulting, and participating in professional associations, finding that retirement provided them with time to pursue these endeavors and that, although they were retired from academic service, such activities were still important to them. Some emeriti created new pathways for themselves in retirement. Michael (social science) and Vega attempted new careers, while others undertook new activities, such as earning another graduate degree and then teaching part time in the field, volunteering in the local community, or consulting.

According to Valerie Conley’s 2007 AAUP survey on changes in faculty retirement policies, most institutions convey the emeritus title to retired full-time faculty. This distinction is generally bestowed based on several criteria, such as the number of years employed at the institution, the department chair’s recommendation, and the approval of the campus board of trustees or a similar governing board. The emeritus rank, in principle, provides the possibility for continued involvement after leaving the institution. I have found that the emeritus title serves three main purposes: (1) as a status symbol, (2) as a connection to the retired faculty member’s former institution, and (3) as a means of obtaining access to campus perquisites.

When asked about the emeritus title, Woodrow (veterinary medicine) stated, “It’s extremely important to me; it’s something I consider one of my proudest accomplishments.” Ben (arts and humanities) held a different view of the title: “It’s nice, but I don’t suppose it means anything truly. Does it mean you were distinguished in any way, shape, or form? No. It means you got to the end and you get this designation.”

Beyond Free Parking

Few faculty members would be surprised to learn that free parking was the emeritus faculty member’s favorite benefit. Alfred (natural resources) joked that after years of paying for campus parking, he now holds a parking pass accepted at all campus lots, something that would have been more useful to him earlier in his career. The interviewed emeriti valued library access, including access to digital publications, as the next most important perquisite.

Most of the emeriti were unaware of other benefits available to them, despite the existence of almost a dozen other perquisites offered at their institution, such as an annual free flu vaccine provided on campus, life insurance continuation, and the right to attend (but not vote at) faculty senate and university meetings. A benefit unavailable to emeriti, which they missed most, was access to computer technical support staff. One interviewee remarked on how she had relied throughout her career on the university’s technical support staff and struggled with purchasing and setting up her personal computer (particularly software installation and updates) in retirement. The institution from which she retired did not offer free or discounted software, although some colleges and universities do offer retired faculty discounts.

Another important finding was that while the emeritus title brought a natural sense of separation from the faculty member’s department and university, in general the emeriti remained connected with their former departments or desired to be connected to them. Almost all of the emeriti stated that they missed their former colleagues and would like to be involved with their former departments beyond the annual luncheons, retiree socials, and yearly fundraising solicitations.

Ben stated, “I have way less contact than I used to simply because I don’t teach anymore, and that’s another piece that I miss. Obviously, they have done so much hiring. . . . I am sure half the people in the department wouldn’t know who I am, nor should they, by the way. My relations with the department are certainly good.”

Involvement Without Intrusion

Why would emeriti desire reengagement? Often, because of a desire to maintain the continuity of scholarly activities. Ada Demb, associate professor of educational policy and leadership at Ohio State University and my former dissertation chair, is currently navigating the retirement process: “Having been an active intellectual for more than forty years . . . it’s important to me that I am able to continue to use the library and to interact with colleagues and doctoral students. OSU’s online library resources are essential to my writing and research that I may choose to pursue.” She believes that access to the university would provide her further opportunities to “stretch and experiment intellectually.”

Jan Holden, chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education and a colleague of mine at the University of North Texas, plans to retire later this decade and told me that she wants to continue her relationship with her department. “I anticipate that my dedication to my academic program won’t evaporate when I retire,” she said. “I’d like to remain involved and of service—without intruding. One thing I know the program needs is an up-to-date alumni e-mail contact list. Our college’s advancement office is swamped with tasks that preclude . . . compiling and maintaining such a list—but such a list is vital to the advancement effort that is becoming increasingly imperative as government funding continues to diminish. Creating and maintaining a contact list like that is an example of the kind of task I think I might enjoy undertaking: not a lot of pressure or a hard deadline, but a useful—potentially very useful—contribution.”

Arthur (engineering) offers another possible way for emeriti to remain involved: “After having retired . . . emeritus faculty have got some thoughts and ideas about the whole education process that goes on at the university that perhaps could be utilized.”

Irving (arts and humanities), who remains engaged with his department, agreed that service to the former department provides both an enjoyable experience and a way to remain connected with the institution. He referred to emeriti who remain engaged as the “service corps.” He did not think, however, that emeriti should teach academic classes for free, despite a lack of educational funding, because doing so would unfairly take advantage of emeritus faculty members.

Some institutions, such as the University of Minnesota, have created grants for retired faculty to continue their scholarship. Michigan State University’s Faculty Emeriti Association collaborates with MSU’s Office of Faculty and Organizational Development to give an annual award to a campus department that effectively involves emeritus faculty members. Purdue University offers a similar award for retired university employees, including faculty, which also comes with a cash award presented by TIAA-CREF. A small but increasing number of institutions have created emeriti or retired faculty associations, and some provide their emeriti with office space on campus.

As several of my survey participants mentioned, retired faculty members are an untapped resource. While some relocate or pursue new endeavors during retirement, others remain close to campus and want to stay connected to their former institutions, particularly at the department level. It’s a connection that offers advantages to both the emeriti and the university. Sidney Albert’s 1986 Academe article on an emeriti bill of rights is worth revisiting in this context. Developed and initiated through the AAUP’s California conference in the early 1980s, the document recommended twenty privileges that retired faculty should have, such as library access, use of campus recreational facilities, and ability to attend cultural and athletic events. An additional list, developed for those emeriti who wish to continue in their scholarship, included benefits such as access to some of the resources used by active faculty, administrative support, the right to administer grants, and the right to serve on dissertation and thesis committees.

Members of the upcoming generation of academic retirees value their institutional perquisites, many of which are low-cost benefits, and these may pay large future dividends for institutions and retired faculty alike.

Seth Matthew Fishman is a visiting lecturer in the higher education program at the University of North Texas. His research investigates how individuals make the transition from careers in higher education, including in retirement. His e-mail address is seth.fishman@unt.edu.


Comments:

Dear Dr. Warren:

Dr. Fishman is correct when he states that most faculty members would like a closer connection to their campus community, when they retire. A problem arises, however, when the campus is 1,500 miles from where you now reside. After retiring at the end of 1991, I moved from Pennsylvania to Florida. As a retired faculty member, there was still the need to to fill out my days, particularly seek0ng greater knowledge of retailing, an important aspect of marketing.  of marketing.

While teaching, I played tennis once a week. By becoming a member of a country club provided me the opportunity to play three times a week as well as beginning to play golf. Because of physical problems 12 years ago, playing golf four times each week kept me athletically happy. However, by following a new course of action, I was able to actively continue my pursuit of greater knowledge in retailing. Specifically, during the past twenty years, I have: (1) 14 articles published in a number of refereed business journals; (2) Made in collaboration with others, 14 presentations at academic meetings where the presentations are refereed; (3) Gave the plenary presentation at a meeting, jointly sponsored by the Academy of Marketing Science and the American Collegiate Retailing Association; (4) Been elected to the Retailing Educators Hall of Fame (only nine  had this honor, since this Association was founded); (5) co-authored "Retail Buying Practices and Policies in a Global Economy (published by Pearson Prentice-Hall in 2012).

 How was this possible without being near my college? If there was no computer and Internet, I would NOT have been able to pursue my academic pursuits. By staying active in the American Collegiate Retailing Association, there was the ability to work with other professors desiring to advance their knowledge of retailing.Attending a professional meeting provided me the opportunity to work with faculty from a broad spectrum of schools. With the computer and the telephone, it was easy to stay in contact with these people. Further, by making use of the Internet, library searches were minimized. Living in Florida is an asset, allowing these colleagues, who are also friends, to visit me when the weather was cold in the winter season.

I would have one big problem if returning to my campus community. All of my colleagues while working there have retired or have passed away. While I believe Fishman makes a very sound way for retired professors to remain active in their academic pursuits, these other ways have helped me overcome the burden of retirement and not being close to my campus.

Sincerely

Myron Gable
Professor Emeritus of Marketing
Shippensburg University
Shippensburg, PA
Telephone Number: 941-359-1926


The article by Seth Fishman in the May-June 2012 issue of Academe entitled “The Merits of Emeriti” cited Sidney Albert’s 1986 Academe article in which he discussed an emeriti bill of rights.   Professor Albert, an Emeritus faculty member at California State University, Los Angeles, was the first President of the California State University Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association, founded the previous year.   One of the early achievements of CSU-ERFA was persuading the CSU Board of Trustees to adopt a resolution that “the emeritus faculty shall be deemed to be continuing members of the academic community” and shall have privileges “on the same basis as they are enjoyed by the general faculty.” 

Readers may be interested to learn that CSU-ERFA has grown into an active organization of 2,800 members who have retired from one of the 23 CSU campuses.  Members pay monthly dues which funds the salaries of three part-time staff, plus the activities of various committees including Legislative Affairs and Health Benefits, two State Council meetings annually, a publication issued four times each year and a wide range of services to members.   Those interested in learning more can go our website at www.csuerfa.org

CSU Emeritus faculty enjoy excellent retirement benefits, but in these challenging financial times those benefits are under constant review.   CSU-ERFA, working with other retiree organizations, monitors events in Sacramento to ensure that retiree benefits are not eroded.   The organization responds to inquiries from members regarding issues with their health care provider or other concerns.   The statewide organization also assists campus affiliated retiree organizations by returning a portion of dues to the local group and encouraging the local campus to extend further benefits to its Emeritus faculty.

CSU-ERFA members support their campuses in many ways.   During the past year, CSU campus retiree organizations donated more than $60,000 in scholarships to current students, provided thousands of hours of free tutoring help to students and engaged in many activities that aided their campuses.   We are constantly seeking ways to mutually benefit Emeritus faculty and their campuses.

Don Cameron
Executive Director
California State University Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association

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