The Monument and the Wrecking Crew

Ageism in the academy.
By Margaret Morganroth Gullette

How does a society maintain respect for experience and age? What can it do to give aging past youth a more favorable meaning? These are crucial questions for the United States, where many people, rightly, fear aging because of the demotions they anticipate suffering. Despite attempts to valorize aging, our society is gripped by the implacable ideology of decline: in the age of Alzheimer’s, decline insists that longevity is no great boon. Older people are often considered a “burden,” as the New York Times’s New Old Age column formerly described us.

Ageism may be the last acceptable bigotry. Sometimes flaunted, it is more often overlooked.

Many people would confidently suggest, however, that higher education, with its tradition of explicit admiration for expert knowledge, is one secure location of respect for aging. There, classes of the young are often presided over by graying professors, guides to diverse ways of speaking, writing, and thinking, models for careers that endure, images of people aging well. Yet all those values, which I certainly appreciated as an awed student, are being undermined in our own historical period.

An age-hostile milieu often surrounds the classroom and the faculty lounge. Tenure, which ensures status as people age in the profession, may now give scant protection to figures of authority. Older faculty members can be subjected to stereotyping and loss of status, like midlife workers in Hollywood, in factories, at IBM, in Silicon Valley. A distinguished emerita English professor at a midwestern public research university, whom I will call Linda Serenata, recalls “painful encounters with age discrimination” before she retired. She had hesitated before telling me her story, “not wanting to relive” those encounters.

Oh yes, I was lucky and had tenure from a young age, but at the very end of my career, my department became very biased against the senior professors in various ways: It became difficult to get a graduate seminar to teach because they were all given to the new junior hires; there was an assumption that the older faculty were hopelessly out of touch, even though many of them were conspicuously in the vanguard of developments in their various specialties. The dean kept our birthdays on his desk blotter, hoping he could encourage us into early retirement so he could use our salaries to hire junior people for less. I feel a lot younger since I retired.

Deans like Serenata’s, chairs, provosts, presidents like those who once used “excellence” to keep people of color out of academe—all now use “hopelessly out of touch” against midlife scholars to urge them out. Familiar arguments support addled age ideology: tenure hides “deadwood,” and “we need hiring flexibility,” two younger people for the price of one. I call the nasty assumptions “middle ageism” (rather than ageism) because the tenured victims are younger than “old.”

If invitations come to emeritus professors to teach again, it can be at lower wages, and after demotion to adjunct ranks.

Age discrimination has been described by Barbara DeMille, who earned her PhD at forty-seven and found department chairs skeptical as soon as they saw a woman arrive with some gray in her hair, as so insidious that “it is like trying to draw the outline of a cobweb.” Yet institutional ageism manifests itself, as interviews I have conducted for a study of ageism in the academy show, in two main practices: through administrative pressure on tenured faculty to retire early and through a preference for hiring adjuncts. The effect is to replace the older ladder system, with its expensive and protected upper ranks, with another system predominantly filled with younger, ill-paid, helplessly contingent hires—the adjunct system.

A character in Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation says, “Adjunct teachers are the professorial equivalent of the migrant Mexican farm laborers hired during harvest.” Both can be treated with condescension or disdain.

Midlife academics make better hires, argue “positive-aging” boosters and economists: they are as learned and cheap as young grads and with more experience. Penelope Hayden-Simms (not her real name) was all of these, willing to show up consistently after ten years of praised teaching. Hayden-Simms, well known in age studies, had gone back to graduate school in her late fifties after escaping an abusive marriage: “So going back to school was a huge step for me—risk[ing] being ignored or shamed. There were plenty of incidents of ageism (the head of my department told me that he thought older people going back to school wasted resources), but the joy I felt in learning again allowed me to ignore most of them. And when I made the leap to age theory and ageism, both my life and what I wanted to study began to make sense to me.” Looking younger than her chronological age, she remarried, earned a PhD, published her dissertation (“cutting-edge theory written in clear prose,” wrote one reviewer), and took an ill-paid part-time job in her own university. It took courage to tell me what happened then:

At sixty-five, trying to get [a teaching position] elsewhere proved impossible. Despite a CV that should have given anyone a chance to be considered for a full-time or tenure-track job, which I was seeking, I was ignored, told in various ways that, at my age, nothing else mattered but my age. I never knew until the last moment if I had courses to teach or not. Nevertheless, I kept teaching— required courses and electives I designed, in two departments—for ten years. Until now. After being assured that my courses would be offered again, I received an email telling me that all my courses were canceled. There was never any reason given, no acknowledgment of my work, not a single thank you.

They kept on a younger woman adjunct.

Unlike younger scholars who are laid off, Hayden- Simms may never find another teaching job. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 cannot protect teachers on annual contracts from biased dismissal. “I felt devastated, and I still do,” she told me. “Pathetic as it may seem to those with a lifetime of recognized achievements, I felt stripped of my identity, invisible, disposable, robbed of the occupation I had so recently discovered could give my life such extraordinary meaning.” Hayden-Simms, contrasting herself with tenured peers of similar age, with their “lifetime of recognized achievements,” represents a unique human place where the two unequal educational systems confront each other, in our pivotal historical moment:

How could I have been so naive as to think I could start a career at my age, so stupid? I became ill, and all the nightmares I’d worked so hard to get rid of in therapy at fifty-eight came back. But this time, I refused to take the blame. After the initial hurt, I decided I would place it squarely where it belongs—on institutionalized ageism. So I’m telling you my story to bring to light the unjust assumptions about older people that run rampant in academia: that they grant advanced degrees to us feel no obligation to honor those degrees in the hiring process; that we are simply “reserve labor”; that the lifetime of knowledge and skills that we may bring are without real value; that it is fine to flout age-discrimination laws; that it is acceptable to treat us as if we were not fully human. . . . This is ageist discrimination pure and simple, and it hurts.

Being treated as “reserve labor” at her age makes a mockery of the highly touted promise of “encore careers.”

Ageism can also attack much younger people and may prevent admission to graduate school. “Shane Smith” tells the story of what happened when, after graduating with honors from a University of Washington BA program at age forty, he asked for a letter of recommendation for the PhD program from the same professor who had helped him get undergraduate scholarship aid. The adviser refused, even though Smith had explained to him that he wasn’t married to the idea of becoming a professor:

I was told that my age might [still] be a problem, that certain faculty members were known to support only younger candidates. Of course, no one ever told me verbatim that my age was a problem, not then and not earlier. . . . Without a recommendation from him, I couldn’t apply.

Later, a professor emeritus [at the University of California, Berkeley] explained that there was nothing odd about youth preference in selecting PhD candidates; it had been done for years and he, himself, had applied it in selecting candidates. I think I was too shocked to ask him why (near to tears, if I remember correctly). . . . I miss the intellectual pursuit. It’s a void in my life. I was good at it, passionate, brim full of ideas. . . . Now I spend two hours every morning reading intensely in a café before going to work, but, of course, it isn’t the same. As a white male, I don’t think I understood the difficulties of running into a glass ceiling until now. I always thought that the academy was a merit-based institution par excellence, but I realize now, painfully, that I was truly naive.

What is striking about this story is the calmness with which powerful faculty members practice blatant ageism and make it systemic—without apology. They wouldn’t say “nothing odd about using race” as a criterion. Nor do they reflect on the cascading consequences for their own institution, higher education, and the culture, as I describe these outcomes in the second half of this essay. Some perpetrators hide their personal responsibility for prejudice behind the screen of neoliberal structural forces. The legislature made us do it. The board decreed. I knew the excuses used by ageists, but not the details of the practices or their shattering emotional outcomes. The shock of learning all this from my interviews was for me like approaching a revered monument I had not looked at from behind, only to find that it is crumbling, and that in many institutions, the ravages appear irreversible.

Ageism in the Classroom

The classroom, too, may be a site of ageism. Leni Marshall, a feminist gerontologist who has surveyed the research, observes, “Most students arrive at college with a set of stereotypes about ageing firmly but unconsciously embedded.” Society teaches us from a young age what to think about people bearing the marks of gender, race, or age, all written on the body. Some students start out mocking old people in the very courses, like anthropology of aging, that are about old people. They make jokes about slowness, deafness. Some think we smell. Some answer an older authority figure insolently (as I describe in my book Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People).

A young person who utters such remarks asserts a subidentity I call young judge. Cocky by virtue of their allegedly superior hormones and technological savvy, young judges reject those they’ve stuffed into the category “old.” LOLing on the internet, one troll wishes that “these miserable old once-werepeople [not] survive as long as possible to burden the rest of us.”

One preventative, to protect society from the epidemic of ageism, is to start “agewise education” young. Whatever the problems of higher education, and despite the presence of young judges, the college years may be the best time to raise age consciousness. After all, many students want to become competent decoders of reality, masters of systemic ideologies like sexism and racism, upholders of ethical standards.

Age studies is the field Hayden-Simms fell in love with, the field that needs her, the field the academy needs. With fast-growing scholarly networks in Europe and the Americas, age studies involves a multidisciplinary set of approaches, integrated into many social science and humanities courses. There, age is being integrated into students’ concept of intersectionality. Students are receiving powerful tools for critical thinking about the social construction of ageism. Forty percent of US Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four were enrolled in postsecondary education in 2014, according to the Department of Education: 12 million under age twenty-five.

We need counters to ageism in every course that touches on culture, including the medical humanities and the neurosciences. It would be good to promote agewise interventions that can affect millions of students every year as they start on their education for life. We would do this not only for their sakes—so that they may fear aging less and think better of older people—but for the sake of an entire society and economy harshly saddled with the ideology of decline.

Loss of the Ladder of Respect

What situation could be worse for the future of aging, or the future of higher education, than privileged spaces of learning in which students being prepared for life can be carelessly ageist in class discussions? Where few older students are present to model age solidarity, and academic employers needle midlife faculty members to retire or discriminate against older (mostly female) adjuncts? Yet today’s system rationalizes losing tenured people by claiming to want younger adjuncts, while ill-paid and unprotected adjuncts resent the (disappearing) generation of the privileged, and colleagues with power poison the atmosphere with barely disguised rudeness toward inferiors who are older.

I want to add another rationale for valuing tenure: the losses to the nation from the structural erosion of tenure. These losses go far beyond the values of free speech and dissent, indispensable as those rights are to the training of the young and the continuation of democracy. What is at stake is an entire symbolic structure, embedded in tenure, that implicitly gives meaning to aging. It needs to be asserted that because of tenure, the teaching hierarchy is a model of life-course development. When apprentice teachers become assistant professors, and then associates, and sometimes full professors, and, barring ethical lapses, stay on, respect rises. Duration of service is a proxy for age: aging comes with pay raises, “recognized achievements,” increasing collegiality and publications, awards or other forms of conferred status. As for apprentice teachers: that halo of anticipated prestige helped make each classroom, including mine as a teaching fellow at Harvard University, a space of respect for learning. (However good they may be as teachers, adjuncts are denied such expectations.) With such accretions, aging loses its sting.

The academic form of the age-experience hierarchy called “tenure” exposes people to its norms at impressionable ages. For most of the last century, students absorbed the values of the age-graded system in a billion classroom encounters. They unconsciously felt how longevity counts, not just in families that happen to respect elders but also in the major institutions to which their education was entrusted. Young people have to be able to look up to elders in order to look forward to their own ascent up the ladder of years. In short, that life-course model and the meaningfulness that tenure provides are crucial to society at large, in every generation. The new way to look at the current direction of higher education, then, is that an unequal two-tier system, marred by ageism, is replacing a great and good life-course development system. Data compiled by the AAUP indicate that the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty has declined from about 45 percent in 1975 to about 30 percent in 2015. According to a 2015 article by Caroline Fredrickson published on the Atlantic’s website, women make up the majority of contingent teachers, with estimates as high as 61 percent. By contrast, 59 percent of full-time tenured faculty are men, according to Fredrickson. Right-wing cuts to higher education funding or willful budgetary choices have propelled the race to the bottom in wages within the larger gig economy. “Universities have themselves been innovators in developing new forms of deprofessionalization and just-in-time labor practices,” writes Robert Samuels in Radical Teacher. Some faculties are largely composed of younger people who know themselves to be replaceable and who can be treated as disposable wage slaves.

This contemporary transition in higher education is deplorable. The basic immediate cost is human suffering. Learning these conditions, talented younger people can refuse to enter graduate school; younger adjuncts may depart. They have options. But for older PhDs like Hayden-Simms or DeMille, for older graduate students like Smith, or for long-term faculty like Serenata, this situation means opportunities squandered, talents wasted, lives distorted, wisdom demeaned.

In our own time, there are and will be far fewer gray heads in academia. Current retirees who are women or men of color, who stepped up the rungs of the ladder of years after having been excluded for so long and having helped others enter, may note with bitterness the brevity of the historical period of fair seniority. Some of my friends retired young—some after teaching half-time. Others are teaching, and teaching well, into their sixties and seventies. They are watching the end of the grand system they adorned. Ageism has turned out to be a powerful, silent means of disrupting the older system of tenure. As Samuels points out, students rarely understand the academic labor system. Tenured faculty may be no better informed. Presidents do not boast about the percentage of adjuncts on the faculty. Institutionalized ageism is also a long-term outcome of increasing adjunctification.

And with the loss of respected elders comes the increasing proletarianization of faculties, the weakening of faculty governance over curriculum, and the loss of the protections and standards that made teaching attractive to generations of brilliant and dedicated people, however poorly paid in comparison with other professionals. Some data suggest that graduation rates drop where adjunctification rises. The most highly endowed colleges and universities will remain great, but only if they decide to keep more of the tenured and the responsibilities that tenure ensures—and thus the life-course values it indirectly but powerfully conveys.

Seniority is the word for meritocratic systems that underwrite respect for aging and the value of experience. The other major institutions that still provide such life-course models—the military, government, and teaching in unionized schools—all depend on seniority based on tenure. Holding ageism at bay is possible, in part, because these tenure systems, some under new attack, still exist. This makes the transition a contest rather than a tragedy foretold.

One ethical imperative of any cultural system is to value aging through the life course. Otherwise, as the inventor of the term ageism, Robert Butler, put it, in the painfully questioning title of his 1975 book, “why survive”? As an age critic, I am the reluctant chronicler of the avoidable decline of a remarkably impressive nationwide ethical and ontological system—a result manipulated and justified in part by treating aging, in the profession, and in ordinary life, as a decline.

The question is whether anything can still be done to undo the erosions of tenure, for the sake of the values it supports. Neoliberal cost accounting, dominating other values, may make resistance to these trends futile. The unbearable contradiction I am presenting would consist of this: age studies’ anti-ageism sweeps into the disciplines as a fresh and welcome piece of intersectionality, at the same time that academe becomes more fully ageist in its structure, more defenseless to protect its highest interests, and more mediocre in its quality.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, is an internationally known age critic and the author, most recently, of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2017), parts of which were adapted for this essay. Her books include Agewise, the winner of an Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and Declining to Decline, which won the Emily Toth Award as the “best feminist book in American popular culture.”

Photo by Olaf Kruger/Imagebroker/Alamy Stock Photo


Excellent information and perspective on this issue about which there is very little awareness. My father was a professor at a university for nearly 50 years. During his final years on the faculty, younger colleagues would actually move to another table in the lunch room to avoid sitting with him. It was very painful. Now I am a 55-year-old full professor myself at another institution where, due to a "financial crisis" they have cut all faculty travel and professional development money except for Assistant Professors. The message is clear.

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