The Beginnings and Ends of Tenure

PBS NewsHour recently featured a segment called “Colleges and Universities See Graying Workforce Holding On to Coveted Positions” about tenured professors keeping their positions into their 70’s and 80’s (see the video below). Two primary concerns arise:

  1. Mentally and physically we decline with age, which may have implications on how well we can perform teaching and research duties. On the contrary, these seasoned professors also gain value in their extra experience.
  2. By holding onto positions beyond typical retirement age, it restricts the availability of tenure-track positions for younger, recent Ph.D.’s. PBS gives an example of an English Ph.D. who has not been able to secure a full-time, tenure-track job in seven years and has to resort to multiple part-time instructor positions.

Some schools are strategically offering retirement preparation for professors. In these cases, professors are “eased” into retirement often with financial and lifestyle mentoring, lessened course loads, and opportunities such as keeping professor emeritus/emerita status.¬†While I don’t believe a strict, forced retirement age is a practical solution, the topic raises more questions about tenure in higher education.

Professors who have held their positions for decades have valuable experience that should not be taken for granted. However, challenges may also arise in keeping them up-to-date with evolving pedagogy, methods, technology, and ways to connect to students from generations more and more distant from their own. On the other hand, inexperienced professors should be more familiar with contemporary practices and pedagogy and with the younger generation. However, I have also heard nothing but horror stories about the first few years of a tenure-track position. Making the leap from freshly-minted Ph.D. to tenured professor is trying.

I wonder if schools could do a better job at scaffolding the learning process of becoming an effective, tenured professor by pairing retiring professors with their replacements. The younger, inexperienced professors could learn from the retiring professor’s experience while gradually taking over more of their responsibilities. Thoughts?


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