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The Merits of Emeriti: Providing Campus Community to Retired Faculty

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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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 



The posting below looks at a study on the lives of emeriti faculty. It is by Seth Matthew Fishman a visiting lecturer in the higher education program at the University of North Texas. The article appeared in the May-June, 2012 issue of Academe, Volume 97, Number 3, published by the Americn Association of University Professor (AAUP) [], 1133 Nineteenth Street, NW, Suite 200 Washington, DC 20036. Copyright ©2012, The American Association of University Professors.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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The Merits of Emeriti: Providing Campus Community to Retired Faculty


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

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