Terra Sigillata

As state university systems are making budget cuts and furloughing professors while have to expand course sections to meet burgeoning enrollment, one solution may be to tap the expertise of retired professors in the area.

The Research Triangle area of North Carolina, home to over a dozen colleges and universities, is also home to at least 600 retired professors.

This morning, Eric Ferreri of the Raleigh News & Observer, one of the best higher-ed reporters in the biz, reports on the offers from very accomplished profs who want to give back to their community and the relative lack of response from the big universities:

Evelyn Huber has found a way to tap those resources. Huber chairs the political science department, where budget cuts would have forced her to eliminate an honors seminar on European politics because she didn’t have the $7,500 to pay an instructor.

She found an answer in Jurg Steiner, who spent 40 years on the UNC faculty before retiring in 2000. He has taught on a part-time basis since and was happy to do so without pay this semester. If anything, Steiner is a better teacher now than he used to be when he balanced a full teaching load with research and administrative responsibilities, he said. And he spends at least half of each year in Europe conducting research that he incorporates into his politics seminar.

Of course, there is some reticence to such a temporary solution:

While budget cuts have strained many academic departments, university leaders are leery of plugging retired faculty members into roles that may not fit them perfectly.

“This really has to be one of those things where matches get made,” said Ron Strauss, [UNC-Chapel Hill] executive associate provost. “We don’t want to bring back people who ended their academic careers several years ago and aren’t keeping on the cutting edge of their disciplines, just as a stopgap measure.”

[. . .]

Still, Strauss concedes that if professors are a good match, department heads would be wise to use them.

What do you think? Does your university have a program for connecting retired profs with current academics?

Comments

  1. #1 Nick Hirsch
    September 22, 2009

    Although we don’t have a program as such, my small liberal-arts college regularly asks retired faculty to teach, especially senior seminars in their areas of expertise. Many of the retired faculty also keep in regular email contact – they’re a wonderful resource for new faculty just learning the ropes!

    Another good place to use retired faculty – PEER REVIEW! I don’t know if any journal editors or NIH staffers have tried it, but surely any additional reviewers would only reduce the time it takes to review papers and grants. And this would certainly be appreciated by overworked faculty who currently have to balance these duties with teaching and grant-writing!

  2. #2 Gerry Rising
    September 22, 2009

    While in general I support this “use” of retired faculty and have taught such courses myself, I worry about how it fits into the pattern of ever increasing substitution of cheap labor for tenure-track faculty. Every administrator in this country likes to add adjuncts who teach for far less than regular academics and the farther down this path we move the more we turn our higher ed institutions into advanced high schools. There are, after all, other responsibilities of college and university faculty.

  3. #3 Cass_m
    September 22, 2009

    I agree with Gerry. As a short term ok but the institution must have a long term plan to get back to hiring faculty. Volunteers burn out (and retirees die eventually) then the problem re-emerges with a vengance.

  4. #4 MRW
    September 22, 2009

    I don’t think that being slightly out of date is a serious problem for most teaching.

    I do think that staying up to date is to be valued and supported in faculty members over the course of their 30ish year careers, but most classes would be fine with a prof. who hasn’t done research for 9 years, provided that they make an effort to find out whether anything important & relevant to the class has changed.

    Like Gerry, I’m hesitant about the prospect of this becoming more permanent, but if a well managed (ha) temporary measure can keep the classes being taught for now, it’s sure to be better in some cases than canceling the classes.

    On the other hand, I’m skeptical about the peer-review suggestion. I’m a bit torn, actually. Experienced scientists wanting to stay involved in science without doing the research certainly have some role to fill in peer-review. On the other hand, being current is more important in peer review than in teaching.

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurdsson
    September 22, 2009

    This is tolerable as an emergency solution, especially if there is unique expertise required. For anything more than a year, this solution destroys the job market and pushes out fresh graduates.

  6. #6 Joe
    September 23, 2009

    I think volunteers (or adjuncts) are fine for special topics or courses that nobody else wants to teach; but they should not take jobs from potential, tenure-track faculty.

  7. #7 Joe
    September 23, 2009

    Of course, as soon as I hit the “Post” button, I think of something else. If it comes to someone volunteering to teach a course, I think it is time for the the administrators to earn their big bucks by finding some way around it. True emergencies, of course, may need unpalatable, short-term responses.

  8. #8 DrugMonkey
    September 23, 2009

    I agree with Gerry. You do not want to go down this road because administrators will find it too tempting to continue to tap this cheap source of class hours. Classic labor issue.