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?