While many workers are counting the days to their retirement, some Yale professors are counting the number of hours they have left to complete their research.
After former Yale professor John Fenn received the Nobel Prize in chemistry this October, Yale’s retirement policy has exposed itself to criticsm. Before 1993, Yale policy stipulated that faculty members had to retire upon reaching the age of 70, although they could seek emeritus status if they wished to continue teaching. Many people have suggested that had Fenn not been forced into retirement at the age of 70 back in 1987, when he was at a pivotal point in his research, he might have stayed on at Yale rather than moving on to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is currently a research professor.
In 1993, federal law made it illegal to set a specific age for retirement, and Yale adheres to this legislation. Despite this change, some current professors emeritus who retired before 1993 do not feel as though they have been treated fairly.
Out with the old?
While some members of the faculty and administration agree that the current retirement policy has not had any drastic consequences, others maintain that the new standards hinder the recruitment of younger faculty and place limits upon professors emeritus.
The real dilemma concerns tenure and retirement, Fenn said. The University only has a certain amount of money it can give to professors.
“[Professors emeritus] are using up funds that could be used for younger faculty who are doing most of the work,” Fenn said.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said the current policy has not diminished the opportunities for younger professors, as the administration continues to use most of the same standards in recruiting and tenuring professors.
But some feel that age restrictions were enacted for a reason.
“Universities were concerned about what would happen when professors got old and couldn’t pull their own weight,” Fenn said. “You cannot force them to retire if they are tenured.”
Although they may be conducting first-class research, as Fenn had been doing when he was working as a retired professor at Yale, professors emeritus may not have an easy time competing against younger tenured professors for the research funding they need.
Science professors, who may find it difficult to secure laboratory space if they retire and seek emeritus status, are particularly affected by the policies. Ramamurti Shankar, chairman of Yale’s Physics Department, acknowledged that lab space is not guaranteed for retired professors, but said the University does its very best to provide them with adequate facilities.
“But when doing absolute first-class research, you get the first place,” Shankar said.
Fenn was not granted a laboratory in which to continue his Nobel Prize-winning research, which contributed to his decision to move to Virginia Commonwealth University in 1994.
Teach ’til you drop
Some members of the faculty and administration contend that Fenn’s situation was unique and say that any initial conflicts resulting from the policy change have been resolved.
“One of our most active faculty members is [Sterling] Professor [Emeritus Vernon] Hughes,” Shankar said. “Yale gets a certain prominence due to his research — The fact that he had to retire at a certain point is quite arbitrary.”
Ian Shapiro, chairman of Yale’s Political Science Department, said the overall effect of the change has been minimal.
“I think it caused the age of effective retirement to go up a little, but then it stabilized,” Shapiro said.
But some professors emeritus feel that they are not treated with the respect they deserve.
Sterling Professor Emeritus Vincent Scully said he was forced to retire in 1991 before federal law prohibited the use of a mandatory retirement age for professors.
“I am prejudiced against the retirement policy because I want to go on teaching ’til I fall over,” Scully said.
Scully said Yale’s policy towards retired professors inhibits his ability to do what he loves, as it is not economically possible for him to teach solely at Yale as an emeritus professor. To make ends meet, Scully also teaches at the University of Miami.
But efforts are being made to ensure that the academic pursuits of older professors are not limited by retirement regulations.
“I think that one good by-product of [the 1993 change] is that it caused the University to take a long hard look at how it treated emeritus professors ,” Shapiro said. “Universities didn’t really have any incentive to treat their emeritus professors well [before 1993].”
Shapiro noted that treating professors emeritus well is a matter of attitude, rather than economics.
“Most of things you have to do for emeritus faculty aren’t expensive, but they want to be treated in a dignified way,” Shapiro said. “In an age of voluntary retirement you’re not going to get people to voluntarily retire unless you treat them well.”
Shapiro said he believes that professors emeritus should not have to feel restricted in the requests they make for anything that will facilitate their work.
But the University recently announced a more visible step in establishing an academic community for older professors — the construction of a new building for retired faculty that will serve as a center for research and teaching.
Shapiro commended Yale’s decision to create the center as a creative and intelligent example of the University’s desire to meet the needs of the emeritus faculty. This center will be located on Elm Street, near the Visitors’ Center.
“It sounds as though the University is trying to sweeten the loneliness of retirement,” Scully said.
But Scully said celebrating older professors has merit in and of itself.
“In the humanities,” Scully said, “theoretically, we get better [with age].”