The Frontal Cortex

Old Professors

Ever since 1994, when universities were no longer allowed to require professors to retire at a certain age, the average age of academics has been steadily rising. Here’s the Boston Globe:

This year, 9.2 percent of tenured professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences are 70 or older, compared with none in 1992. Other universities have seen jumps in the percentage of older professors, although the actual number remains small on many campuses.

“The aging of the faculty, caused in large part by the absence of mandatory retirement, is one of the profound problems facing the American research university,” said Lawrence H. Summers , who as Harvard president pushed for the hiring and tenure of more younger scholars. “It defies belief that the best way to advance creative thought, to educate the young, or to choose the next generation of faculty members is to have a tenured faculty with more people over 70 than under 40, and over 60 than under 50.” Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes the undergraduate college and the doctoral programs, has 186 tenured professors age 60 or above, and 156 under age 50.

Although the percentage of aged professors is significantly higher at elite universities – like Harvard – I tend to agree with Summers’ pessimism. I’ve now got a surfeit of friends entering the assistant professor pipeline (i.e., trying to finish their Ph.D or D.Phil) and they all complain about their dismal job prospects. They tell me that a big part of the problem is that professors refuse to retire. (And why would they retire? I imagine that being a tenured professor at a serious university is a pretty fanstastic job.)

However, it’s worth pointing out that the situation might be different depending upon the academic field. I’m sure that many research universities are loathe for their big science professors to retire simply because of the research money involved. Nobody wants to lose a lucrative HHMI or NIH grant. Also, science labs are continually suffused with fresh blood (grad students and post-docs), which tends to ameliorate the problem of old academics pursuing old ideas.

Of course, none of these caveats really apply to departments in the humanities. In fact, my own experience as an English major who took lots of History classes was that the best professors tended to be the young ones. (Forgive the gross generalization, but younger professors just seemed to be more excited about the ideas they were spouting. That said, I also had some wonderful older professors, including one so old he used to do office hours with only half his dentures installed.)

But what do you think? Is the graying of academia a bad thing? Or does wisdom correlate with age?


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    December 28, 2006

    There is a middle ground, if Universities are willing to support it. The Professor Emeritus.

    I’ve known a number of people who don’t teach any more and are no longer regular faculty, but who are given office space, who continue to work and do research but don’t use up a “slot.” This can be a good deal for all involved.

    At Vanderbilt, they tend to be a little stingy about allowing people to have office space, although some people have succesfully negotiated it. There are at least two recent Prof. Emeriti here who still make big contributions– one in research, to a particle physics group, and the other in helping with the outreach programs at the University’s public outreach observatory.


  2. #2 chet snicker
    December 28, 2006

    In fact, my own experience as an English major who took lots of History classes was that the best professors tended to be the young ones.

    this sort of stereotype promotes ageism. passion knows no age.

  3. #3 Harold Henderson
    December 28, 2006

    Like all stereotypes, ageism contains a dab of truth. (Besides, if it was Jonah’s experience, deal with it.)

    Check out David Galenson’s book “Old Masters and Young Geniuses” — mostly on artistic types — for evidence that some people are creative young, and others do their best work late. It doesn’t seem to vary by discipline, just two types of minds.

  4. #4 Matt
    December 28, 2006

    So what is the title for these ‘office space’ holders anyway…and do they no longer get a salary from the university?

  5. #5 Lizzie
    December 28, 2006

    I just took a class and was very frustrated by the professor’s less than engaged, unprepared, space-cadet manner. It took me most of the semester to figure out that I think he simply didn’t have much “oomph” left, probably due to feeling tired and yes, old. (I’m trying to say, I didn’t jump to this conclusion immediately.) Maybe he was really good in years past, but he absolutely wasted our time with his lack of energy and disorganization.

  6. #6 chet snicker
    December 28, 2006

    sirs & ladies,

    i hope you are so generous and charitable with the generalizations that others of youth and vitality make of your during your “golden years” when your very visage betrays the years which have been drifted beneath your eyes! is it too much to presume that a lack of enthusiasm transcends age? yes, perhaps age does bespeak a lot of vitality, and yet does not youth suggest an enthusiasm for the fashions of the day?

    i say to you: beware of the preconceptions in your mind’s eye for in the end the lord god sees all and shall repay you in kind in this life if not the future.

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  7. #7 jayh
    December 29, 2006

    I’m IT technology, not in academia but at age 57 this pressure to retire is starting to stare me in the face. And quite frankly, the thought of being forced to stop working terrifies me. I can certainly understand and sympathise with these people who really want to continue what they have been doing for many years.

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