Chemistry professor Martin Saunders has been a member of the Yale faculty since 1955 — one of the longest science faculty tenures in Yale’s history — and he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. Indeed, Saunders, who will turn 80 in January, still maintains an active teaching and research schedule.
Universities across the country have seen their faculties age over the past few years, as sinking retirement packages and frozen salaries lead professors to defer retiring. A study by TIAA-CREF, which provides financial advice and money management services to potential retirees, reported in The New York Times found that nearly one-third of university faculty polled said they intend to continue to teach until at least 70.
But at Yale, very few tenured professors retire each year, according to Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle, and that hasn’t changed for some time.
“We’ve had relatively small retirements, usually varying between four and seven each year,” Suttle said. “They’re such small numbers that you can’t really make comparisons from year to year.”
Still, professors said it is important for older professors to retire to make way for junior faculty, but financial concerns can make that difficult for many of them.
“If Yale wants to ease us out, we can only hope that they’ll find a way to make it worth our while,” English professor Paul Fry said. “It’s all about the money. Yes, we still do feel the moral obligation to get out of the way, and we’d have jumped at the chance until the recession, but now for most of us the whole scenario has unfortunately changed.”
PLANNING FOR RETIREMENT
Until 1994, when the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act abolished the national retirement age, professors were forced to step down by age 70.
At the time, professors and administrators across the country expressed concern about the possibility of an aging professor population. But physics professor Thomas Appelquist, who was dean of the graduate school when mandatory retirement for professors was abolished, said that at the time he did not immediately perceive a large change in the number of Yale professors older than 70.
“Life is finite,” Appelquist said. “People get ill, people die, professors cannot stay on forever. By a kind of self-selection, the number of older professors stabilized.”
In the absence of a mandatory retirement age, the University designed three schemes to encourage tenured faculty to plan their retirement on their own. Yale College Dean Mary Miller said while these retirement options are available to any faculty member, no professor is ever forced to retire.
“The University has a retirement plan, but it’s more passive,” she said. “We create a system, and people can use it or not.”
‘ALL ABOUT THE MONEY’
Other universities around the country have begun offering incentive packages to encourage older faculty to retire. While Suttle said Yale has provided retirement incentive packages, with both financial and professional benefits, for years, he declined to comment on whether the University is considering enhancing those packages.
Seven professors interviewed said they feel obligated to refresh the composition of the University by allowing junior professors to assume their positions. But because Yale’s retirement incentives have been depleted by the recession, Professor Fry said, professors may feel financial pressure to stay on.
Applequist said he thinks that health care is a priority for a potential retiree in the current economic climate.
“Yale has a very generous subsidized health care program,” he said. “Once someone retires, it becomes more expensive.”
Nine of the 10 professors interviewed said deciding whether to retire can be difficult.
Chemistry professor Scott Strobel, former chair of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry department, said that many professors feel lost when they contemplate life after Yale.
“One of the things that’s scary about retiring from the University is that you put so much of yourself into the University that you’re left wondering what else there is in life,” Strobel said.
Additionally, Saunders said, bringing in new faculty is rarely cheaper than continuing to pay the higher salaries of senior professors. In the sciences, he said, the start-up costs of a new junior faculty member can range from $600,000 to $1 million.
As of fall 2009, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences employed 979 tenured professors, according to the Office of Institutional Research.
Correction: Sept. 15, 2010
An earlier version of this article misreported the number of tenured Yale professors. It is 979, not 1,135.