A reply to Sally Feldman and the ‘forever professors’

This issue has been on my mind for two weeks or so, so I thought I’d better blog about it. On 13th August, Sally Feldman, Senior Fellow in Creative Industries at the University of Westminster, wrote an opinion piece for the Times Higher entitled “It’s not fair to go on forever”. As the title suggests, Feldman is concerned that since the relaxing of compulsory retirement rules in the UK, some academics may wish to prolong their careers after the age of sixty-five. This has been the case in the US since 1994, and Feldman identifies several cases of ‘forever professors’ bonded to their faculty offices because of fear of retirement, or lack of space at home to store books. Feldman claims that one third of academics in the US are now over the age of sixty, and I don’t doubt it – I’m married to one. Meanwhile, she points to a logjam of newly-minted PhDs clamoring for those jobs that the tenured seniors are unwilling to relinquish. This is increasingly likely to be the situation in the UK, she predicts.

I have to say, I don’t believe this will be the case, and even if it were to happen, I don’t support the same kind of cull that Feldman seems to wish for. I outline some humane alternatives at the end of this piece.

In the US, college life has been, until recently, far more comfortable than it has been in the UK for quite some time. Academics probably have more autonomy over what they teach, how they teach it, and at what times they prefer to teach. Expectations of research and scholarship echo more congenial times, and it is assumed that these endeavours primarily serve the needs of the scholar, rather than the financial and league table ambitions of the university. There is no REF (Research Excellence Framework), or TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). There is no QAA, though most US colleges and universities are taking baby steps towards what they call “assessment”. Significantly, there is little in the way of ‘performance management’, as academics are considered to be self-managing professionals. Furthermore, as my spouse has just reminded me, some of those over-60s are still working because there is no forgiveness of student loans, which continue to be deducted, even from the state pension. Just wait until BIS gets hold of that idea.

But in the UK, it is, of course, precisely the constant conveyor belt of audit, accountability, ranking and standardization which is driving older workers out of university posts. I see no signs of ‘forever professors’, but I am, instead, saddened by the loss of ‘forgotten professors’. This is a lament for friends whose careers have been foreshortened and uncelebrated – victims of what Ros Gill calls the ‘hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’.

I’m appalled that so many of my retired friends in the UK have left without the courtesy of a leaving party or gift. Sometimes their departure is not even announced at all, and colleagues are left wondering why they haven’t seen so-and-so in a while. To university management, they are expendable ex-employees who are ‘no longer adding value’. One former colleague who wished to extend his service, was asked to put forward a ‘business plan’. One assumes that grant income was a pre-requisite, in an era where professors are expected to earn their own salaries. This incident represents a refusal to acknowledge that an academic is more than an employee of X or Y university; they are members of a community of scholars which ranges beyond that institution. We count our colleagues over continents, not cubicles. Feldman is right to note that our identities are rooted in our contributions to a discipline, as well as to a university, but let’s recognize that to be ejected from that entails a severing of collegial bonds and personal esteem. This is not helped by an unsympathetic HR machine which rescinds your email account and parking privileges the day you retire. One retiree, returning to clear out his office, found himself unable to drive onto campus at all, as his swipe card had already been cancelled. It is ironic, that university administrators who often view themselves as defenders of ‘civility codes’ can fail to recognize when they fall short in this area.

Feldman foregrounds the plight of the next generation of scholars, apparently kept out of careers by the tenacious and tenured. However, her assumption that vacated posts will be replaced by new full time academics is not a well-founded one. Those retirees who opt to take up offers of casual teaching roles will often meet the same young PhDs they thought they had stepped aside for. In the US, 50-75% of faculty are ‘adjuncts’, part-timers, often with PhDs. University managers know that there is a steady supply of hopeful scholars who form a convenient, flexible, acquiescent workforce.

And then there’s the issue of legacy. Many older scholars spend their entire careers building up courses, modules, degree and research programs, only to see these eviscerated without a senior academic protector. Some only stay on to fight the administration in defence of their academic endowments. You will indeed hear these people venting their spleen about universities which seem to be at war with the more critical disciplines in the humanities. It is not, Dr Feldman, because they hate their jobs, rather the opposite. They may, though, hate the finacialized and marketized context in which they are currently asked to perform them, and wish for better conditions to hand down to those young PhDs. This is a noble aspiration, and there should be more room for these repositories of institutional memory and combative example.

Feldman does make some suggestions for a more humane way forward for academics after retirement. Here are some more:

  • Hold a retirement party and make sure someone makes a speech celebrating the person’s career. And get HR to cough up a decent amount for the gift pot.
  • Don’t cancel their email account, unless they request that. It helps to stay in touch, at least for a few years.
  • Invite retirees to talks and events within their area of interest, and to retirements and inaugurals in the department.
  • Invite retirees to speak on their research, or deliver one-off lectures to undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Invite retirees to continue PhD supervisions.

Most importantly, I would like to see universities – managers and academics – re-cast retirees as an asset, not a liability. Please let us treat older workers as we ourselves one day would hope to be treated.

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5 thoughts on “A reply to Sally Feldman and the ‘forever professors’”

  1. Nice one, really interesting article, one of the best I have seen on this topic. There are a growing number of intellectuals and ‘academics’ outside the University system now; approaching some kind of tipping point actually, time for some fight back.

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  2. When I read “I’m appalled that so many of my retired friends in the UK have left without the courtesy of a leaving party or gift”, I thought I was reading an article in The Onion magazine. You cannot be serious and call this piece a response to Sally Feldman opinion piece, which raised a very valid and important issue.

    All you appear to say is that the professors who are about to retire deserve more respect for what they have done, which I don’t think was in any doubt in the original Feldman article. Let me also reiterate that the professors who chose to retire deserve all the respect they can get and the ones who chose to continue contributing to their department should be allowed to so in the capacity of Emeritus Professors, consulting or mentorship schemes, etc.

    However, I take issue with you about the suggestion that leaving parties should be a responsibility of the University. Of course every professor should get a leaving party, but these are often organized by students and colleagues who will miss the person leaving. Even more troubling is the suggestion that HR has to “cough up” a lump sum payment to reward the person leaving. This is a ridiculous suggestion and it implies that you haven’t been paying attention to the funding situation over the last 5 years and what lies ahead in the horizon.

    The person retiring is already getting a payment to retire. It is called a pension! And for someone retiring now it is the best pension one can get, and quite possibly the best pension an academic will ever get! Granted it is their own pension money and they deserve it, but think about the current generation. By your own admission about 50-75% of people are adjuncts and people with no regular full time contracts. What do you think their pension will be when they retire? I myself fall in this group and I can tell you that I am in my late thirties and do not even have the “luxury” to pay into a pension pot. Ironically, I will probably ask to not retire in 30 years time, but for a very different reason… because I will not be able to afford it.

    Your so-called “response” is very typical of what one would expect from the baby boomer generation and those that think alike. The baby boomers had everything going for them: free education, tenure posts, a nice pension pot supplemented handsomely by public institutions, an easy way to the housing ladder and a decent retirement age. Why should they stop now? The sense of entitlement is engrained in their DNA. Your suggestion that cash strapped universities, which are not even investing in early career scientists should cough up more money to give the baby boomers, is just plain wrong. It is also insulting to those who are struggling to earn a decent academic post.

    You completely dismiss Feldman’s concern that a relaxation of retirement rules will affect more junior people getting tenure. I experienced this myself when I had a “tenure track” offer from a respected university. When I asked more details about the tenure procedure, I was finally told the “fine print” that I will be considered for tenure when a tenure post becomes available (i.e. when someone retires). Exactly the point Feldman was making.

    We know very well what we are up against and we see the reality around us, but please retire, get your well-deserved pension money, and don’t complain that you got a bad deal. I would not normally bother commenting in this issue, because I really respect senior staff and I really think that they still have a lot to offer. However, when reading your article, it felt like you were rubbing salt to an already open wound.

    Just for completion, let me also declare void your argument about retirees paying student loans. This may be the case in US, but I guarantee you that no baby boomer retiring now is paying back any student loans. I will however give you credit for pointing out that BIS will most likely change the rules, and the 60 year olds who would still be paying back loans will be the very early career academics presently struggling to get a full time and secure post.

    Your point about email accounts and security cards is valid but this is a problem with all staff that leaves a university and not necessarily directed at retirees. Still, it is a minor nuisance when we are really talking about a whole generation of scientist who cannot get proper jobs and the make up of our valuable higher education institutions.

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    1. Thanks Chad. After 35,00 hits on the blog, somebody has raised a point of disagreement. I’m relieved. However, I need to correct you on a few points. I suggested HR make a contribution to a party to recognise a retiree’s service. Normally that would be wine and a lunch, not a ‘lump sum’. Pensions have been reduced in value by at least 15% since 2007, but yes, for my generation they are better than yours will be. You will need to continue the battle we have failed to win for you over pensions and casualisation. I have been on the picket lines – have you? My response is very far from an attitude of entitlement. What you are reading is the view of someone who thinks all academics deserve decent treatment. I have not framed this as some sort of prerogative of golden agers. I feel a huge responsibility to contribute as an alumna, on a monthly basis, to scholarship funds for those who do not have my good fortune. Otherwise, how would I face my own students ? To add insult to injury, I am now not even contributing to today’s students via my taxes. I have a conscience about that. And yes, some baby boomers in the US are still paying back loans in their 60s. I’m sorry you feel resentment, and I can understand that. Being divided though, will not help us achieve decent working conditions and collegial harmony.

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