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Colleges and Universities See Graying Workforce Holding On to Coveted Positions

March 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In academia, many professors remain working and teaching long past traditional retirement age, leaving younger potential professors shut out from highly coveted full-time, tenured positions. As part of a series on older workers, economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on how institutions are negotiating with aging faculty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest in our series of reports about older workers, our focus this time, the interesting and sometimes perplexing dilemmas colleges and universities face as their teaching work force is graying.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman was back on campus, part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

STEPHEN TRACHTENBERG, George Washington University: When my doctor or my wife tells me I ought to stop, I will stop.

PAUL SOLMAN: Seventy-five-year-old former George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg still teaches public service there.

DON GALLEHR, George Mason University: You guys are all working well together and that’s wonderful.

PAUL SOLMAN: At George Mason University, 71-year-old writing professor Don Gallehr is still teaching too.

DON GALLEHR: If the kids are happy and learning and I’m happy and learning, I’m here.

PAUL SOLMAN: And how long does 69-year-old Boston University particle physicist Larry Sulak plan to keep blowing up protons?

LAWRENCE SULAK, Boston University: I have no idea. Shelly is a good model.

PAUL SOLMAN: That would be his 80-year-old colleague, Nobel-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow.

And when do you intend to retire?

SHELDON GLASHOW, Boston University: That, I don’t know.

PAUL SOLMAN: America’s work force is graying, and so is academia along with it. Professors over 65 have more than doubled since 2000. Some 40 percent of all workers say they will work past 65.

In academia, however, however, a full 75 percent plan to work past a normal retirement age.*

Historian Claire Potter is at The New School in New York.

CLAIRE POTTER, The New School: Most of us believe that we should be able to work on our own terms for as long as we want.

PAUL SOLMAN: Potter blames lifetime tenure, meant to protect professors from political firings, and the legal end to mandatory retirement in 1994. But Potter insists she will be different.

CLAIRE POTTER: I’m going to retire when I’m 67.

PAUL SOLMAN: A blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Potter has argued that older scholars are clogging the pipeline for the younger ones. The number of Ph.Ds now far outstrips the number of tenured job openings.

CLAIRE POTTER: There’s a lot of rage out there about being trained for jobs that you can never have. Is it worth keeping younger people out, not giving them the chance to have full-time work, to develop themselves, so that older people can hang on to keep everything we love?

PAUL SOLMAN: And these days, even younger people aren’t always spring chickens. It’s been seven years since 38-year-old Joe Fruscione earned his Ph.D in English from George Washington University. He has yet to land a full-time job.

JOSEPH FRUSCIONE, Adjunct Professor: The market for Ph.D.s in humanities is almost super-saturated. There have been some positions where I have had to compete with hundreds of applicants who all on paper have roughly the same education and skill sets.

So Fruscione works three part-time gigs. One is running a Moby-Dick discussion group at a Washington, D.C., bookstore.

JOSEPH FRUSCIONE: When you hear Moby-Dick, you think?

WOMAN: Whale.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fruscione also has part-time gigs at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and George Washington.

So-called contingent faculty like Fruscione are paid class by class. Fruscione earns $4,500 to $7,500 hundred dollars per course, typically teaches eight over two semesters, all in, less than $50,000 thousand dollars a year.

JOSEPH FRUSCIONE: There aren’t any guaranteed benefits, or anything towards retirement. It’s essentially getting paid just for the teaching. It’s hard in some level to predict how much I will get paid per week or per month.

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, cost-conscious colleges could rely on cheaper contingent labor even if tenured faculty were retiring. But immovable veterans are an added impediment.

Don Gallehr has been teaching just what Joe Fruscione does for 47 years.

DON GALLEHR: Am I keeping somebody who wants a tenure-track job from getting a job? Yes.

And that’s OK. As long as I’m a good teacher, that’s what’s important.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sheldon Glashow, hired away from Harvard by Boston University at age 67, heartily agrees.

SHELDON GLASHOW: I’m still actively engaged in the triumvirate of activities that are required of a B.U. faculty member. I teach, and I teach well, most of the time, and I engage in service activities, and I do research, and I do it well.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, if some of us don’t ebb as we age, Glashow is a good bet to be one of them. At age 78, he debunked a much-publicized experiment claiming that particles could move faster than the speed of light.

For most of us, though, cognitive function shrinks with our height, our abs, our libido. In work by Harvard economist David Laibson and others, skills like word recall and counting backward from 100 by sevens declines steadily throughout life. But, as we age, we gain experience. Our so-called experiential capital rises. And the net effect is positive. People become better decision-makers as they age, up to a point.

But the negative effects start to dominate in our ’50s. And by the ’70s, the decline steepens for the average person.

Steve Trachtenberg is 75.

STEPHEN TRACHTENBERG: I’m still cooking with gas, but I’m not the man I was at 65 or 55.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even so, Trachtenberg thinks traditional retirement at age 65 is too young.

STEPHEN TRACHTENBERG: People live longer now and are healthier longer now. But I think that having an age at which the institution and the individual could together decide whether the person ought to retire would be a useful thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Trachtenberg says 70 would be a good age to do that. So why does he continue to work at 75?

STEPHEN TRACHTENBERG: Well, if we had the conversation, I would push back. I would say, no, I’m still working.

LOU BUFFARDI, George Mason University: Everybody’s situation is different.

PAUL SOLMAN: George Mason psychology professor Lou Buffardi is retiring this spring at age 70. But he doesn’t think everyone should.

LOU BUFFARDI: And there are many folks my age and older who are some of our very best people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sure, says Claire Potter, but there’s a catch.

CLAIRE POTTER: I think one of the things you get if you have an aging faculty is there’s a kind of break on innovation that is unnecessary. Younger people who are going into academia are more excited about their teaching. Many of them are involved in the digital world.

And they have a substantially less important role in shaping what we teach, how we teach, and how our universities run than much older people who were educated 30, 40, and even 50 years ago.

PAUL SOLMAN: But let’s face it. Today, many of us are working past the traditional retirement age. I myself am 68, have been a TV business reporter for 36 years, and teach. But I have no plans to hit the hammock.

Look, a lot of us love our work, even define ourselves by it. Professors are no different.

LOU BUFFARDI: It isn’t just a job. It’s who we are. And to leave that is just tough.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lou Buffardi has joined George Mason’s voluntary phased retirement program. Long-serving faculty teach a reduced course load for two years at full pay in return for a promise to retire thereafter.

LOU BUFFARDI: As it gets closer, I thought, you know, what was I thinking?

PAUL SOLMAN: One-third of George Mason’s tenured professors are 60-plus, up from just 10 percent in 1990. It’s one of many schools trying to grease the skids to retirement.

WOMAN: The central task of retirement is really finding activities that provide meaning and purpose for your life.

PAUL SOLMAN: It gives courses on lifestyle and financial planning, even tips on staying in shape.

WOMAN: This is your new favorite exercise.

PAUL SOLMAN: More faculty left after phased retirement debuted in 2010. Mason now runs focus groups to find new incentives.

MAN: If they had offered a part-time job in perpetuity, I would have been first in line to grab it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But don’t these people have a fallback, hobbies, say?

MIRIAM RASKIN, George Mason University: We’re so entrenched in everyday crises and writing and doing what we have to do here that we leave very little time for anything outside.

TERRY ZAWACKI, George Mason University: I think it’s more also that when you leave, there’s a real sense of being physically disconnected, that you don’t belong in that place somehow. I’m not sure what it would look like, but if there were a space where you could work or you could have some — some of your books or something.

MAN: We should just take over a building.

PAUL SOLMAN: Larry Sulak claims neither he nor his older colleague Sheldon Glashow has lost a step, but as chair of Boston University’s physics department, he had to ease out many over-the-hill underachievers. Their first reaction?

LAWRENCE SULAK: I’m not going to go. I don’t have any reason to.

But you sit down and find out what the sweeteners are. What does someone really want, an office forever, a title of emeritus, help getting a job elsewhere, helping his wife get a job or his husband get a job? All these things are necessary, and you play every trick you can.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because, say Sulak and others, you need to renew the ranks, nurture the next generation. And these days, more and more scholars wait in the wings, like Joe Fruscione, who, after wrapping up his contingent class at George Washington, traipses back to his car — he doesn’t even get parking — and drives to his next adjunct class in Baltimore.

JOSEPH FRUSCIONE: It takes about 45 minutes to get there in the middle of the afternoon, which is not horrible; it’s not great.

PAUL SOLMAN: No wonder folks like Fruscione are called road scholars, their careers a constant commute, as their elders stay put. What keeps them humming along?

JOSEPH FRUSCIONE: There’s a way where this is a very nice job, a tenure-track job one set of colleagues, one office, one parking space.

PAUL SOLMAN: And if he got that, he might never want to leave either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how long do you plan to work? We want you to weigh in. Go to Paul’s Making Sense page to let us know.


*Based on research by the TIAA-CREF Institute.