With End Of Mandatory Retirement, U.S. Schools Face New Challenges

As change in law allows science faculty to keep working after age 70, academia must rethink its personnel policies. The end of mandatory retirement for faculty at United States colleges and universities--a policy change that became effective on January 1 of this year--is placing a new burden on the schools as well as individual faculty members. While the end of the longstanding policy has not brought about--as some administrators

Billy Goodman
Apr 17, 1994

As change in law allows science faculty to keep working after age 70, academia must rethink its personnel policies.
The end of mandatory retirement for faculty at United States colleges and universities--a policy change that became effective on January 1 of this year--is placing a new burden on the schools as well as individual faculty members.

While the end of the longstanding policy has not brought about--as some administrators had feared--a deluge of complaints from young job candidates concerned about a dearth of future job openings, it is causing schools to take a hard look at their retirement incentive plans. At the same time, professors are now finding that they have to make independent decisions about when to stop working.

When Congress passed the 1986 amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967, prohibiting mandatory retirement on the basis of age for most workers, it included several temporary exemptions, notably one for tenured faculty in higher education. That exemption expired Dec. 31, 1993.

The strongest sentiment for preserving mandatory retirement for tenured faculty came from a few major U.S. research universities, where the majority of faculty retirements have come at the mandatory age.

That, say some administrators, is evidence that many professors may choose to stay at their institutions past the age of 70. These administrators, joined by many faculty members at research universities, have opposed ending mandatory retirement, fearing that the result will be a drastic reduction in employment opportunities for young scientists and a consequent decline in vigor and new ideas at their institutions.

Ernst Benjamin, general secretary of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Professors (AAUP), acknowledges that some of these institutions could have trouble if they don't encourage early retirement or restructure pensions, which are generally based on years of service and involve yearly contributions. But many older faculty, Benjamin says, "are very valuable, and institutions are unhappy to lose them."

At the University of Chicago, where administrators and faculty have been deeply concerned about the effects of the so-called uncapping of mandatory retirement, Stephen Stigler headed a faculty committee that looked into the repercussions. Stigler, a professor of statistics, says, "We came to the con- clusion that the effect on our university would be substantial and costly."

In addition, Stigler studied retirement patterns at five other institutions and concluded that "absent mandatory retirement, the rate of retirement would be very slow at major research universities. By the turn of the century, about 10 percent of the faculty would be over 70."

Not all administrators are so sure that uncapping will lead to a postponement of retirement by large numbers of faculty members. Jeremy Knowles, dean of the faculty at Harvard University, says, "Without a fixed point, the decision of an individual to retire becomes a more personal and deliberate one."

Historically, the rationale for mandatory retirement in academia was based on two notions. First, colleges and universities need to be able to hire new, usually young, faculty as a source of new ideas and as a way for a department to enter new research areas. Second, some administrators have feared that it would be difficult without mandatory retirement to remove elderly, tenured professors who had become ineffective.

It seems inevitable that some faculty members will now remain employed after 70, postponing new hiring. But the magnitude of this effect is unclear, administrators say. One source of evidence is from natural experiments: institutions that uncapped long ago, usually as a result of state law.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, uncapped about 10 years ago, but the change "does not seem to have affected the average age of retirement," says Phillip Certain, dean of the College of Letters and Science. He says the effect on hiring at the university has been minimal, dwarfed by many other budgetary problems plaguing colleges and universities broadly.

Some universities, such as Chicago and Stanford, expect a far greater percentage of their faculty to remain employed after age 70. When the mandatory retirement age was changed in 1982--by earlier amendments to the ADEA--from 65 to 70, the median age of faculty retirement at both institutions increased from 65 to 70. "It is as if the federal government had required us to hire 50 new faculty members over the next eight years, all over 70, all at the highest salary scales, and all based on their performance 35 years ago," says Stigler.

For Chicago professors, apparently, emeritus status is not as attractive as it is at many other colleges and universities where teaching loads are much heavier, such as at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Bryn Mawr provost Judith Shapiro says, "We don't have quite the same problems where the preretirement life might not be much different from the postretirement life."

Does Youth Equal Vigor? The central issue of whether younger faculty are the primary source of new ideas is controversial, with little evidence either way. Many faculty members, both young and old, interviewed by The Scientist feel there was at least some truth to the assertion. Marsha McNutt, a 41-year-old geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it this way: "The vitality of any research organization is dependent on turnover, and on the need to bring in new people with new ideas."

A National Research Council committee charged with looking into the consequences of ending mandatory retirement concluded that there was little evidence that scholarship diminishes with age. In a commentary on the NRC committee's 1991 report (Ending Mandatory Retirement for Tenured Faculty: The Consequences for Higher Education), Saunders Mac Lane, an 84-year-old emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, disputed that conclusion. The evidence was not based on professors over 70 years old, he wrote, because "[under] previous retirement rules such faculty were not present." He also suggested that these matters are not easily studied quantitatively: "Careful observation of the qualitative features of academic life suggests that older faculty, while providing continuity and some insights, are usually not energetic enough to engage in forefront research, in new courses, and in dynamic and inspired teaching."

Without doubt, there are exceptions to Mac Lane's assertions. The NRC committee reported on a study that found "individuals over the age of 75 who maintain their cognitive [abilities] at a level overlapping with the average performance of individuals under 35."

"Doubtless correct," wrote Mac Lane, but colleges and universities are not interested in hiring "average" individuals: "The tests for these abilities have little relation to the activities of faculty in providing inspiring teaching or original research."

Before uncapping, universities sometimes used mandatory retirement to avoid having to dismiss unproductive faculty members. Wait- ing for mandatory retirement to remove unproductive faculty is no longer an option, so many universities are revising their post-tenure review programs.

The University of California system already had a policy of reviewing tenured faculty at least every five years, says Ellen Switkes, assistant vice president for academic advancement. Professors who were not doing well often deferred that review, she says, adding that they no longer can do that. The university also reviewed its termination policy.

Faculty members and administrators were nearly unanimous on one point: Professors can become "deadwood" at any age. A corollary is that "high performers go on being high performers," says Brett Hammond, who was the staff director for the NRC committee. Committee member Donald C. Hood, James F. Bender Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, says that "if you take a look at people who are not performing well, chances are they haven't been performing well since they were 55 or younger."

Geraldine Richmond saw her mentor at UC-Berkeley struggle with impending mandatory retirement, although he was active in both research and teaching. "It seemed a shame, when he was so active and I saw younger people just made professor who were putting their feet up," says the 41-year-old University of Oregon chemistry professor.

Many universities have used incentive programs to encourage early retirement. Many more are likely to institute them. The University of Chicago has, according to Columbia's Hood, one of the best articulated plans. Henry S. Webber, associate vice president for administration at Chicago, says one of the most important incentives is the cash bonus professors can receive if they retire between 65 and 70. The largest bonus, if one retires at 65, is equal to twice the average of the final three years' salary. The bonus declines to zero if the professor retires at 70.

Chicago and other universities are trying to eliminate an incentive for faculty members to stay on a year or two past 70; in many cases, a professor's pension, paid out as an annual annuity, increases dramatically with just an extra year or two of service. This is in part because many pensions are defined contribution plans--the university makes a contribution each year to the pension. Chicago has instituted a cap on the amount a faculty member can accumulate under the defined contribution plan. "The spirit of the plan," says Stigler, "is not to keep paying into the retirement plan for an 85-year-old."

Another way to encourage retirement is to use disincentives. "One method of discouragement our department uses all the time in a non-age-discriminatory way is space al- location," says MIT's McNutt. "If [the chairman] decides you're not using the space and keeping grants funded, it is in his power to reassign the space."

On the other hand, one retirement incentive is attractive emeritus status. Bryn Mawr's Shapiro says her college does its best to make retired faculty feel a part of the place; for example, it allows them to teach and includes them in the annual faculty publications record.

A few faculty who just missed the cutoff, turning 70 just before the exemption expired, tried to sue their institutions, but none was successful in challenging age-based mandatory retirement, to AAUP's knowledge. Others who celebrated their 70th birthdays on or near last December 31 had to deal with conflicting sentiments about the value of mandatory retirement.

One emeritus professor who says he favors mandatory retirement in principle is Val Fitch, who retired last June--six months before the uncapping--from Princeton University's physics department at 70. Mandatory retirement, he says, is "an excellent idea and removes arbitrariness from the situation. But when you find yourself having to retire and have colleagues epsilon months younger than you that don't have to retire, it makes it hard."

Billy Goodman is a freelance science writer based in Upper Montclair, N.J.