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Retire Already! Why?

by Larry Susskind
December 2014

Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of drawing and painting at Hofstra University charged that anyone who holds on to a university appointment beyond age 65 is selfish and greedy. What upsets her most are senior professors who have no intention of retiring. The longer they hang on, she argues, the fewer opportunities there are for new junior faculty to be hired. Moreover, she asserts, senior faculty are staying on just because they can. (Federal law not only outlawed mandatory retirement in the academy, it made it impossible for university administrators to even inquire about the retirement plans of individual faculty members.)

There are so many wrong-headed elements to Professor Fendrich's argument, I don't know where to begin. First, she doesn't say that faculty who are no longer effective should retire; she assumes that anyone over 65 (70 at most!) should quit; that anyone over 65 is no longer a capable teacher or scholar. That's age discrimination at its worst. Second, she assumes that the departure of senior faculty will lead to the hiring of new full-time junior faculty, by their departments. Given the tendency of many colleges and universities to switch, whenever they can, to adjunct and part-time appointments, students have no guarantee that the departure of a senior faculty member will result in a new full time appointment. Thus, the department of all faculty members of 65 is likely to lead to the rapid loss of quality in academic programs. Third, it's not clear who is going to mentor all the new junior faculty she assumes will be joining the university ranks. Anyone who thinks that excellent college instructors and researchers are born and not made, doesn't know what they are talking about. Every department and every field needs a mix of senior and junior faculty to ensure the on-going development of a highly skilled professoriate.

This brings me to the program recently adopted by my university. When I reach 70, I can switch to part-time status, yet still remain a member of the tenured faculty. I can begin to receive my retirement benefits, but still receive a half-time salary. This does not require that I switch to emeritus status (which would basically strip me of my privileges and responsibilities). Emeritus faculty may be assigned a group office (so they visit the campus every day), but in most cases they do not play a part in hiring, promotion, admission, or continuing teaching their courses, supervising graduate students or serving as principal investigators on research grants and contracts. Under the new system I am talking about, senior faculty can continue to do all these things. By switching to a multi-year (renewable) contract, and reducing my draw on departmental resources, my department has the money it needs to hire a new junior faculty member (with the half of my salary that is released). While there is no guarantee this will happen -- because the central administration may want to hold the "head count" constant -- if there is a new hire, I will be on hand for several years (at least) to mentor the new hire, and perhaps teach together or jointly manage a research project.

There was a reason that mandatory retirement was forbidden in American universities in 1994. Too much experience and brain power were being arbitrarily jettisoned. Now, people like Laurie Fendrich want to go back to that system by arbitrarily shaming faculty over 65 into retiring early. I have no doubt that many 65 year old faculty members are no longer as productive or skilled as they once were. I hope anyone who falls in that category will decide to retire and make way for a new generation of college instructors. But, that should be decided on a case-by-case basis. I would also point out that there are younger faculty who are equally unproductive or incapable. I have no problem with a system of peer review that provides feedback to all faculty members every few years after they have been granted tenure. If, after several negative reviews, a faculty member who has been warned (and given the help required to re-establish their bona fides) is asked to reduce their paid time and revise their responsibilities, that would not be unreasonable. A fair, evidenced-based peer review process (such as we use to make promotion and tenure decisions) is fine. It is the arbitrary assumption that everyone over 65 is washed up, selfish or greedy that is unfair and repugnant.

Biography


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

 



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Website: www.lawrencesusskind.com

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