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While thinking about this recent question, I was reminded of an issue at two different institutions I've taught at, as well as a third institution I am aware of via my father.

One complication I have seen at each of these universities is a number of professors who are well into their 70s (or even 80s), yet who refuse to retire. Obviously retirement is a personal decision that has no one-size-fits-all answer. However, I saw several instances of these professors causing "log-jams" in terms of resources and departmental turnover. For example, a professor who oversaw a lab next to my father's had "owned" his lab for something like 50 years. He did his research in there, brought in subsistence level funding, and "taught" a class every other semester (meaning his PhD students taught the course). He took up an entire lab and resisted anyone "encroaching" on his space. University administration placed pressure on him over some of these issues and he would usually (with much gnashing of teeth) comply in the minimally sufficient way. He never gave them enough cause to actually fire him. Because he had been with the university so long and was tenured, they could not fire him outright on account of his age alone.

In another instance, this time at one of my own universities, we had three professors who were about 85 years-old. They fulfilled their minimal teaching responsibilities (chosen in order of seniority in the department), but had each last published a paper about 5 years prior (with ~5 papers combined between them in the last decade). They sought next to no funding. They just squatted in their positions. The department could not hire any new professors until a position was vacated. By the time these professors finally retired (or died, in the case of one), there was a seven year gap between recent hires. This meant that there were exactly two professors who were not yet tenured, with one of them currently being evaluated for final tenure decisions. The department is struggling with stagnation now due to almost no turnover in their faculty. In the next five years or so, a number of professors in the department will reach age 65-70 ('retirement age'), meaning that within the next 5-7 years, the department will be comprised of ~65% untenured, assistant professors. As such, the department has been forced to attempt to recruit some established professors away from their current tenured positions at other universities (or have professors stick around well past retirement age, which caused the whole issue in the first place).

I also observed this phenomenon when I was applying to post-docs. Some universities wanted to hire tenure-track faculty, but instead had to hire post-docs in order to cover departmental teaching loads. In many instances, this leads to significant departmental instability in terms of continuity. Departments usually can't make a post-doc the graduate coordinator or even have them sit on committees (thesis/dissertation, curriculum, scheduling). This in turn places a larger burden on the existing faculty.

To be clear, these departments have policies in place that enforce certain productivity levels. These professors adhere to these policies, albeit barely. Yes, the standards could be raised, however, we also are trying to strike a balance between encouraging good research/teaching and enforcing a long list of rules and commandments.

My question is thus as follows: Should universities start including a clause in professors' contracts that mandates a certain retirement age? Or at the very least, what are some practices a department can adopt that will mitigate issues of professors who work well past standard retirement age?

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    Why would you want to institute a policy based on age rather than on the actual behaviors you want to avoid (lack of productivity, small amounts of teaching, etc.)? – Raghu Parthasarathy Sep 17 '18 at 17:42
  • @RaghuParthasarathy. In the cases I am speaking of, policies do exist to enforce productivity and teaching. It is just that these policies have been stretched to the extremes by faculty who have 50 years of tenure. No one wants to be the person who has to tell a former department-head and university researcher of the year "We are firing you because we need some new blood in the department. Yes, you've obeyed the minimum policies, but you're using up resources." – Vladhagen Sep 17 '18 at 17:52
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    Universities in the US had mandatory retirement at 70 until 1994 when it was made illegal. Why was it eliminated? Probably worth thinking about when considering reintroducing it. – Dan Fox Sep 17 '18 at 19:22
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    Obviously retirement is a personal decision. Actually it is not always - at least in Germany it is basically the opposite, see @cebeleites answer. – Dirk Sep 18 '18 at 10:01
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    Some people post-retirement are a great source of wisdom while others are a nuisance - and even the latter opinion may depend on your field/topic. - There is most definitely no single "one size fits all solution". - I suspect there should be a way to "force retire" people who provide no benefit/cause problems, but at the same time the people who do provide a benefit (work/knowledge etc.) should be made welcome to stay if they want. - Generally the largest benefit of older staff members will be their subject knowledge as well as connections. – DetlevCM Sep 18 '18 at 10:34
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Here in Germany, professors are public servants and automatically retire when reaching retirement age. This has the equally automatic consequence that they are not paid a wage out of the university budget any more but a pension. And pensions of public servants work the way that any money they earn is subtracted from the pension.
Thus retired professors are typically (as long as they don't mess up the working atmosphere of the department) a net gain: any lecture they hold is essentially for free, any exams they take (they keep the ability to act as examiner) save work for someone else in the department. OTOH, they typically have to move into some small office, and can keep lab space only if they have grant/3rd party money to pay for that.

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The issue is not the age of these faculty members but that they do not carry their share of the workload and expectations of the department: Their sum of research, teaching, and service work does not match what one would expect from someone with the likely salary of someone who has been on the faculty for a long time.

The problem is then one of setting policies. If you don't publish, then you're clearly not matching the expectations for the position. There are then two options a department and faculty member have: initiate the procedure to revoke tenure; or change the workload assignment. We have done the latter in my former department with some old faculty members: They were simply assigned 4, 5, or 6 classes a year instead of the common 3, since they were not doing much research any more and were not overly active in service either. The policy that instituted this did not mention age but was simply based on research productivity. The net effect was two-fold: (i) a number of faculty decided to retire; (ii) the remainder now had a way in which they could actually contribute significantly to the mission of the department, given that their research productivity had waned a long time ago; this also allowed them to, for the first time in a long time, get good annual evaluations because these are based on the workload distribution assigned to them.

In other words, departments that do not address the problem typically do this because they want to "keep the peace" and not "rock the boat" or simply don't want to deal with the problem. But it's not true that there is no recourse -- it's not terribly difficult to design departmental policies that make sure everyone contributes in some way.

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It seems to me that in all the examples you have given, the problematic issue is not age per se, but rather, the low level of productivity of the older academics you mention. It is also notable that the problem stems from the tenure system, where the older tenured academic is effectively immune to labour competition from new applicants. This is a form of 'closed shop' in labour economics, and it has various economic implications relating to productivity incentives and outcomes.

Since age is not the outcome of interest, it makes little sense to impose a policy that discriminates with respect to age. (Setting aside legal requirements, which might also prohibit this.) It seems to me to be more sensible that if a change to policies is made, to try to improve productivity and use of resources, that change ought to be either: (1) abolition of the tenure system, thereby freeing labour competition generally and freeing university resources; or (2) keeping the tenure system but raising the minimum productivity requirements imposed on those with tenure.

In regard to these two choices, there is already a substantial amount of economic literature that analyses labour competition under the tenure system (see e.g., Alchian 1953, Alchian 1968, McPherson and Winston 1983, McKensie 1996, Brown 1997, Winston 1999, McGee and Block 2008, Chen and Lee 2009, Brown 2017), which might be of interest in determining whether tenure is a good idea or not. In the first of these references, Alchian posits that non-profit tax-subsidised enterprises (such as universities) free administrators from the usual profit-loss constraints of the market, and therefore allow greater shirking, and greater arbitrariness in hiring and firing decisions. Alchian theorises that tenure acts as a limiting device to offset arbitrariness in hiring/firing decisions by administrators, and thus, there is a trade-off between reduced labour competition, and increased incentives for applicants to seek tenured positions. Brown (2017) tests this theory empirically using data from the 2006 and 2010 IPEDS surveys. He finds that tenure is more common in non-profit institutions than for-profit institutions, and that in private non-profit institutions tenure is positively related to endowment level and negatively related to reliance on tuition and fees.

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There are places with mandatory retirement ages. There are other places where such practices are illegal. Most professors are subject to annual (or so) review and generally self justify their continued presence at the institution. Many have an annual self review, followed by a meeting with the dean. But in the presence of tenure and the absence of misconduct, such things mostly affect things like salary and teaching schedules. A self funded researcher is less affected by this, of course.

But any university or lab can provide inducements to retirement as long as they are generally available and not directed at specific individuals. For example, a (large) cash settlement in exchange for giving up tenure is fairly common. A cash settlement combined with a timed phase out is also possible. Some institutions have an honorary role for emeritus professors that keeps them connected but with few duties. It also helps keep people mentally active as they age.

Such things as inducements to retire are actually beneficial in general, not just in extreme cases. Some people don't want to retire because of financial considerations even though they no longer really enjoy their work. It is also an advantage to an institution to bring in new "talent". It is nearly impossible to get tenured if the faculty is so full of never-retiring full professors that there are no open permanent positions. Over time, you will get less qualified applicants if the young stars see no possibility of advancement.

Forcing someone out other than for misconduct of some sort is unethical, and often illegal.

  • Are you referring to the buyouts of a year's pay or so as "large"? Or are some places offering more? – A Simple Algorithm Sep 18 '18 at 1:48
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm. I have heard of a bit larger, but not often. – Buffy Sep 18 '18 at 11:02

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