Thinking about Retirement

Policies for late-career and retired faculty.
By Karie Frasch, Marc Goulden, Angelica Stacy, and Janet Broughton

Our research at the University of California points to policy changes that can benefit academic institutions, late-career faculty, and faculty emeriti. All too often, the differing attitudes of three key constituencies can be summarized with these caricatures:

Academic administrator: I hate it when faculty refuse to retire, especially when they are just doing the same old-fashioned research and teaching they’ve done for decades. If they would leave, we’d be able to hire new faculty, people who would add to our demographic and intellectual diversity (and cost us less in salary). Next year I’m going to offer bigger retirement incentives, but this is getting awfully expensive.

Late-career faculty member: I really wish people wouldn’t hint around that I should retire. Yes, I’m getting tired of teaching the same old courses, but my long-time research continues to be satisfying, and I can’t imagine not being a faculty member—these days it’s my whole life! I’m not really sure what the financial picture would be if I retired, but even if it’d be fine, I wouldn’t want to leave. Of course, if my health declined I’d have to think about it, but with luck that’s years away.

Professor emerita: I wish I’d known long ago how enjoyable a time this would turn out to be. I’m glad to be involved with department life, but on my own terms—no more irksome committees or con­tentious department meetings. I like having plenty of time for my scholarship, and I love teaching the occasional seminar. But I’m sad that people don’t seem to know how much I continue to contribute, and I often feel left out, almost invisible.

Paradoxically, academic administrators will prob­ably maximize the benefits they care about if they stop aiming their policies directly at incentives to retire and instead do more to meet the needs of their current late-career faculty members and to recognize the value of their emeriti.

A recent study we conducted suggests why this approach is the best one available. We analyzed multiple rich sources of information, including survey responses from more than three hundred mid- to late-career tenured faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley (with a response rate of over 50 percent), and more than three hundred Berkeley emeriti (with a response rate of 40 percent); in-depth interviews with academic administrators at the ten-campus University of California system; and UC systemwide administrative data from one of the largest early-retirement incentive programs in the country, along with Berkeley-specific data for those same programs.

Our study was limited to tenured faculty members. The separation from employment of individuals in this group is appropriately and uniquely constrained by the institution of tenure; indeed, the federal gov­ernment singled out tenured professors for special handling when age-discrimination laws were imple­mented. Of course, faculty members on contingent appointments may face different issues from those in our study group, not least because the timing of their separation may not be under their control. And for many faculty members in all types of positions, the finances of retirement may weigh more heavily in deci­sions about when to retire, depending on their levels of compensation and benefits.

Financial Incentives for Retirement

Until 1982, colleges and universities could mandate the retirement of faculty at age sixty-five, and, until 1994, they could mandate retirement at age seventy. Since 1994, however, federal legislation has prevent­ed academic institutions from setting any manda­tory retirement age. Unsurprisingly, the average age of faculty at most institutions of higher education has subsequently increased, with many faculty mem­bers now working actively into their seventies and even eighties. Academic administrators around the country, worried about demographic and intellectu­al diversity as well as their budgets, have responded largely by creating financial incentives to encourage older faculty members to retire, with some atten­dant programs to “ease” their transition away from the institution.

But can financial incentives help institutions of higher education change the overall age structure of their faculty? Our data offer two reasons for skepticism.

The first comes from the University of Califor­nia Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Programs (VERIPs) of the early 1990s, which provided UC employees with one of the nation’s most massive financial incentives to retire. As a result, almost 20 percent of all tenure-line UC faculty members retired over a four-year period—nearly two thousand indi­viduals. In 1990, 125 tenure-line faculty members at Berkeley were over sixty-five; by 1994, that number had dropped to thirty-one.

Of course, incentives this large cannot be provided indefinitely, and we have found that once the VERIPs were halted, their effects on faculty age-structures evaporated in just eight years. Between 1994 and 2002, the number of tenured faculty members over sixty-five at Berkeley grew from thirty-one to 143, even higher than the pre-VERIP total of 125. (This change also reflects the abolition of mandatory retire­ment.) During the same period, the average age of tenured and tenure-track faculty at Berkeley grew from 47.5 to 50.2, and today it is 52.

A second reason for skepticism about financial incentives is that some faculty members are willing, in effect, to pay to work. While all UC employees receive pension benefits that offer monthly income calculated on the basis of age, years of service, and the highest three years of salary, tenured faculty members approaching retirement age are often in a better position than other faculty members given their full-time employment and higher salaries. Indeed, our analyses show that approximately two hundred current faculty members on the Berkeley campus would receive a higher monthly net income if they were to retire than they receive by continuing to work. (This takes into account the reduction in withholding at retirement plus the receipt of Social Security income in addition to the pension income.) For these two hundred faculty members, the financial incentive to increase their monthly net income has not moved them to retire.

Meaningful Work

Why do financial incentives have limited impact on faculty retirement? When asked to what extent they agree with the statement “My main satisfaction in life comes from my work,” fully 80 percent of mid- to late-career faculty—defined in our study as tenured faculty ages fifty-five and older—agree or strongly agree, compared with just 28 percent of the general US workforce. These survey data, along with data for related questions, make it easy to understand why so many faculty members choose not to retire, even when they have financial incentives to do so. They are in the fortunate position of finding that their work is deeply meaningful to them.

Not surprisingly, when mid- and late-career faculty respondents were asked about their desired age of retirement, more than 60 percent stated that they plan to retire at age seventy or later. But could a realistic vision of a satisfying and meaningful scholarly life after retirement make a difference, either to these faculty members or to their institutions?

Reenvisioning Retirement

When colleges and universities operationalize retire­ment as a dramatic change from full engagement to complete disengagement, they miss out on what may be the beginning of a valuable new career phase for their faculty. Even phased retirement programs gener­ally end with a form of retirement that entails the loss of the individual to the institution following a going-away celebration.

From an institutional perspective, is “goodbye and good luck” the best way to structure faculty retirement? Data from our surveys of active mid- to late-career faculty and faculty emeriti suggest that it is not.

For many emeriti, retirement proves to be the beginning of a new phase of scholarly life, one in which they have the freedom to focus only on the activities they find rewarding. Most Berkeley emeriti continue to live locally, and many are active scholars. Our emeriti survey respondents indicate that they work an average of twenty hours a week on research. This is compared with the average of twenty-six hours a week active mid- and late-career faculty report spending on the research portion of their duties. Sur­prisingly, more than two-thirds of emeriti respondents are employed, many of them by Berkeley, where they can be “recalled” to teach or perform service for the university for a modest payment. A survey conducted by the Council of University of California Emeriti Associations showed that over a three-year period ending in 2015, more than 70 percent of the emeriti respondents at Berkeley published one or more journal articles, more than 60 percent presented research at one or more conferences, and more than 60 percent mentored students or colleagues. For that same three-year period, the office of Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research reported that Berkeley emeriti generated more than $70 million in grant funds, and the campus development office reported that emeriti donated more than $26 million in gifts.

Institutions of higher learning may treat faculty members who retire as though they are suddenly invis­ible, but clearly emeriti are a precious resource for the intellectual life of the academic community.

Supporting Emeriti Engagement

Once faculty members retire, institutions tend not to focus on them because the goal of making room for new faculty has been achieved. While emeriti are typi­cally allowed to participate in many departmental and campus activities, institutions rarely make a concerted effort to encourage or track their involvement. As one retired survey respondent remarked, “The death of place in the faculty continues to surprise and sadden me.” Another reported a “general sense among retired colleagues . . . that attempts to draw retirees into departmental affairs are random if they are made at all.”

In addition to recall, the University of California allows the use of special titles designed to support emeriti in applying for grants, and some campuses have active retirement centers. Still, none of the UC vice provosts thought their campuses were getting the most institutional benefit from retired faculty, especially given the extent to which emeriti identify with academic work and engagement.

In thinking about faculty retirement, both insti­tutions and current mid- to late-career faculty may benefit from knowing that, in addition to staying engaged and productive, emeriti are on average very satisfied and happy. In fact, on many key factors, more emeriti than current mid- to late-career faculty report positive feelings.

Fully two-thirds of emeriti faculty are very satisfied with their overall professional situation, compared with 52 percent of mid- and late-career respondents. Emeriti also report greater satisfaction with their ability to con­trol things that affect them, and their survey responses show higher average rates of overall happiness, enjoy­ment of life, and feelings of being respected and valued. For one retired survey respondent, the pleasure of retirement came from “continuing my teaching, but only of courses I wanted to teach, while avoiding fac­ulty meetings and administrative responsibilities.”

Supporting Mid- and Late-Career Faculty

Like emeriti, mid- and late-career faculty may need support for success. The academic review system at the University of California provides transparent incen­tives for excellence in teaching, research, and service throughout the faculty career, with frequent evalua­tion and increases in pay and status proportioned to accomplishment. Under this system most faculty are successful: satisfied, productive, and engaged. And perhaps in part because this system is so effective, administrators give little focused attention to the mid-to late-career period as one in which faculty members may continue to experience needs and concerns. There is a similar lack of attention to this career period in the academic literature, with most articles focusing on helping assistant professors to be successful on one end of the career continuum and on retirement decision-making on the other.

In our interviews with academic administrators at the ten UC campuses, we found a lack of systematic consideration of the later stages of academic careers. When asked what their campuses do to help mid-and late-career faculty members excel in all areas of endeavor, or to encourage retooling when needed, no UC administrator reported helpful policies or programs designed especially for this group of faculty. And yet, we also heard that some senior faculty members do not keep up when academic fields or technologies change rapidly, that grants may be more difficult to secure, and that teaching may become more difficult without the integration of new material, technology, or pedagogy. Despite their accrued experience and wisdom, faculty members who work into later years may need sup­portive attention from their institutions if they are to continue to succeed as researchers and teachers.

Mid- and late-career faculty also expressed a clear desire for initiatives to support renewal. When asked how useful they do, or would, find various policy initiatives, more than 75 percent said they would find it somewhat or very useful to have access to small-scale research grants for new areas of research inquiry; about 60 percent said that small-scale teaching grants to design new courses would be helpful; and more than 75 percent supported sabbatical leaves focused on intellectual renewal.

While some of these ideas may also be popular with faculty members at earlier career stages, institu­tions that are considering eligibility for such initiatives should also keep in mind the likelihood that faculty members aged, say, sixty may well be working full-time for another fifteen or twenty years—years during which the institution would benefit from their overall success and productivity.

Policy Recommendations

Continuing to focus institutional efforts mainly on making room for new faculty members is unlikely to be effective. This would certainly be true for institu­tions that are replacing some tenure-track faculty lines with non-tenure-track lines, but it is also true for institutions like Berkeley that are maintaining or expanding the size of their tenure-track and tenured faculty. Faculty members will continue working into their seventies and eighties in the years ahead. Instead of providing financial incentives for retirement, institu­tions should support win-win relationships with mid-to late-career faculty, faculty at the point of retire­ment, and faculty emeriti.

Mid- to Late-Career Faculty

Faculty members in the mid- to late-career phase often have unmet needs. Acknowledging that supportive attention could help these professors maximize contri­butions in teaching, research, and service will benefit institutions. This does not mean that institutions need to create new and costly programs designed just for mid- to late-career faculty. Instead, institutions should make sure existing programs are designed to be open to mid- to late-career professors and should com­municate clearly that participation by these faculty members is normal and welcome.

In addition, our survey results suggest that faculty members in this career phase may be worrying about the wrong retirement issues. The majority of current mid- to late-career faculty respondents cite a long list of concerns they feel are “very important,” from the obvious financial considerations to health, family life, professional productivity, and interactions with graduate students. But when emeriti reflected on what factors were actually “very important” in retrospect, none of the earlier ones were considered as significant by the majority of respondents. This suggests that many fears of the unknown could be reduced by regu­lar interactions between active late-career and retired faculty. (One retired survey respondent cheerfully sum­marized advice for late-career colleagues: “Don’t delay retirement!”)

Our findings suggest the value of measures such as these:

• Encourage all faculty members to participate in programs that help them keep their teaching cur­rent.

• Create opportunities that will allow all tenured professors to retool or move in new research directions—for example, through appropriate uses of sabbatical leave.

• Provide mentoring for all faculty members on specific topics from colleagues who are successful.

• Provide one semester of teaching release to allow all faculty members to serve as a caregiver for an ill spouse or other close family member. (Such a policy would probably be of greater use to mid- and late-career faculty than to their more junior colleagues, just as similar policies for new parents are probably of greater use to more junior colleagues.)

• Support “vertical” intellectual collaborations and social connections among all faculty, including emeriti, so that older and younger faculty mem­bers can learn from one another.

• Develop a campus administrative role for confi­dential discussion about concerns related to the research, teaching, or service contributed by any underperforming faculty member. Discussions could be initiated by faculty members or by department chairs and deans.

• Create departmental emeriti liaisons who can share their perspective on retirement with mid-and late-career faculty members.

Transition to Retirement

Offering financial incentives may induce some to retire earlier than they otherwise would, but there is no guarantee that the individuals the institution seeks to have retire earlier are the ones who will take advantage of these types of offers. And an unintended consequence may be that some faculty members who feel unfairly targeted will dig in their heels about retirement. A better approach is to provide attractive options for both the last years as active professors and the first years as emeriti.

Our study has also underscored the importance of finding the right channels of communication with faculty members who may be thinking about retire­ment. While 60 to 80 percent of tenured faculty over age sixty are very comfortable discussing retirement with their spouse or partner, fewer than 30 percent would be very comfortable discussing it with their faculty colleagues, and only 20 to 30 percent would be very comfortable discussing it with their deans or department chairs. The majority of faculty regard retirement as a private matter, and the reluctance to discuss retirement with colleagues, chairs, and deans may arise from concerns about being a lame duck and losing power, influence, or prestige.

We recommend consideration of the following steps:

• Provide chairs and deans with coaching that will help them have comfortable (and legal!) con­versations with senior faculty members about retirement.

• Create a campus-level position held by a respected retired professor to act as a confidential adviser about late-career and retirement opportu­nities and concerns.

• Develop binding agreements to support custom­ized pre- and postretirement provisions. Such agreements can focus on the specific and often unique issues that are important to the individual faculty member both before and after retirement, such as teaching an especially meaningful class, teaching a capstone course in the field, having guaranteed office space for a period of time after retirement, or archiving important materials. Some late-career faculty members may feel comfortable retiring earlier with such agreements in place.

• At all administrative levels, communicate the value of retired professors to the institution and create a welcoming environment for emeriti to continue their academic pursuits. Emphasize that retirement is a transition to a different kind of participation in the life of the institution, and provide the intel­lectual and social space to support it.

• Be sure that late-career faculty members are aware of existing opportunities for faculty emeriti and that they know they will be able to use a designated title to help obtain grant funds.

• Make late-career faculty members aware of policies concerning office space that will be available to them. To the extent possible, guarantee personal or shared office space for a period of time for emeriti who continue to contribute to the university in retirement through research, teaching, or service.

• Work on creative mechanisms that will allow late-career faculty members in the sciences to be confident they will have access to lab space meet­ing their postretirement research needs.


Making the university a place where retired faculty members want to be is good for both emeriti and institutions. As one survey respondent wrote, “It is wonderful that I have been able to continue my involvement post-retirement . . . and knowing this would be the case stimulated me to retire earlier, which I believe on net is [also] a benefit to my Depart­ment, given the enhanced opportunity for renewal in a field like mine, which evolves very rapidly.”

These steps can help:

• Develop a faculty emeriti liaison network, with one representative per department. These individ­uals can share ideas for staying involved, commu­nicate with other emeriti and late-career faculty members in their department, and advocate for recognition of emeriti contributions.

• Create a vibrant retirement center where emeriti can socialize, give lectures, and share resources and ideas.

• Give a central administrator responsibility for faculty emeriti, including tracking their activities and contributions, connecting them with oppor­tunities within and beyond their department, and sending them regular communications about both paid and volunteer opportunities.

• Provide information to departments about mean­ingful ways to include emeriti in the life of the department and the benefits of doing so.

• Regularly acknowledge emeriti and their contri­butions through awards, newsletters, profiles on department websites, and other communication vehicles.

In thinking about faculty retirement, here are three new portraits for the future:

Academic administrator: Sometimes I can hardly tell the difference between our active and retired faculty since they are all so involved! Faculty see retirement as a new phase of membership in our academic community, and they can’t wait to be able to pick and choose among their favorite activi­ties. Some faculty are actually retiring a little earlier now, and our age demographics are stabilizing. We greatly appreciate all that our mid- and late-career faculty and our emeriti contribute to our academic mission.

Late-career faculty member: Retirement isn’t a bad word around here! I used to dread the day when my colleagues would start hinting about when I was going to retire so they could replace me with someone younger. But instead, the university keeps supporting my success, and it’s clear that when I do retire, I’ll be valued here as an emerita as long as I wish. I know so many people who have retired and can’t stop talking about how great it is to continue their careers here on their own terms.

Professor emerita: Finally! The university is not only noticing all the great work that my retired colleagues and I continue to do; it is also bragging about our new discoveries in its glossy publica­tions. My department makes me feel like a valued colleague, and sometimes I actually get asked to do more than I would even want to do. It’s a “prob­lem” I feel grateful to have, and this makes me feel even more loyal to this great university where I have spent so many years of my life doing what I love.

Karie Frasch is director of the Office for Faculty Equity and Welfare at the University of Cali­fornia, Berkeley; Marc Goulden is director of data initiatives in Berkeley’s Office for the Faculty; Angelica Stacy is associate vice provost for the faculty and professor of chemistry at Berkeley; and Janet Broughton is professor of philosophy emerita and vice provost for the faculty emerita at Berkeley. The authors can be reached by email at [email protected].