At colleges, faculties are 'graying and staying'

Friday, April 6, 2012 | 12:48 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — When Jim Sajovic started teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute 42 years ago, a wave of baby boomers caught up in post-1960s radicalism swarmed the campus.

The school experimented with coed dorm rooms, and students slept in class after all-night parties that included group showers, he recalled with a laugh.

Since then, the school has evolved, becoming "saner, more structured, more conservative," he said.

What hasn't changed is his love of teaching. That's the main reason the "60-something" Sajovic hasn't retired — and hasn't even given the subject much thought.

He belongs to a growing group of university faculty members who have passed the traditional retirement age but have opted to stay in the classroom — or the campus art studio.

Nationally, the number of faculty members 65 and older more than doubled from 2000 to 2011. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently that at some institutions, such as Cornell University, more than one in three tenured or tenure-track professors are now 60 or older.

Why are more faculty members "graying and staying?"

For some, like Sajovic, it's because they find fulfillment in the interaction with students and other faculty members.

And teaching isn't digging ditches. Because the work is more cerebral than physical, older professors are in no rush to retire while their minds are sharp.

Faculty members haven't faced a mandatory retirement age since 1994's federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. If they can postpone tapping into Social Security until they're 70, they'll get a bigger check each month to go along with whatever pension they might draw.

"Right now, as long as they are physically able, they are trying to work," said Gary Leitnaker, Kansas State University's associated vice president of human resources. "... I think it has a lot to do with a love for what they do."

Others may think they have no choice. Many older faculty members are looking at retirement accounts that are nowhere near the amount they had expected to amass.

That's another reason Sajovic hasn't exchanged his 16 hour-a-week teaching job for more time painting in his private studio. The economic downturns in the last decade, one right after 9/11 and another in 2008, took a chunk out of his retirement fund.

"That will take years to correct, so there is no big incentive for me to leave right now," he said.

For schools, it's a challenging trend.

They know that the dam of older faculty members eventually will break — perhaps when the economy improves — and instead of a steady trickle of annual retirements, they'll face a flood.

"I think we all worry about losing our good people," Leitnaker said.

Some universities may be hard-pressed to hire faculty to replace the experience that walks out the door. Experience is expensive. At a time when state budgets have shriveled and schools have frozen positions to save money, it won't be easy to come up with competitive salaries to attract more talented faculty.

On the other hand, a retirement boom would open up a lot of jobs.

Rose Reynolds, 36, a post-doctoral research associate from Oregon, was recently hired to teach at William Jewell College. She said it's unusual to see retirements in her field, biology.

"They work into their 90s, as long as they are still productive," she said. "Or until they die."

She thinks it's important for institutions "to employ graying faculty and to rely on their expertise, but it does make it tougher for younger faculty to get hired."

Universities that have been training young faculty members to step into those positions will best weather an exodus.

"The six state universities in Kansas have aggressively pursued hiring the brightest and best faculty," said Andy Tompkins, chief executive officer for the Kansas Board of Regents. "However, they, like the rest of society, are facing a significant number of retirements in the next few years."

At Kansas State, 83 of the school's 1,251 ranked faculty members — professors, assistant professors and associate professors — are older than 65. At the University of Kansas, the number is 123 of 1,342 faculty members.

In Columbia, 336 of MU's 1,842 faculty members are 60 or older, including 95 who are over 65. Seventy faculty members at the University of Missouri-Kansas City are older than 65, out of a total of 657.

Sister Marie Joan Harris, provost at Avila University, is well past 65 and has thought about whether it's time to retire, but "I feel like I can still make a difference," she said. "I'm still effective."

Avila is a small university with only 75 full-time faculty members, 18 of whom are over age 60. Harris said she's not so worried right now about a mass retirement, but "down the road, 10 years or so from now, it could be a problem."

Some schools have created incentives to keep professors retiring on schedule.

At UMKC, a program that allows retired faculty to return to campus to teach one or two courses for 25 percent of their final full-time salary, "has allowed people to ease into retirement," said Gary Ebersole, chairman of the UM's Intercampus Faculty Council.

"I have used this program three times since I've been a department head and gotten people to accept retirement who I don't think would have otherwise," Ebersole said.

Getting aging faculty to retire makes room for young faculty to move up and for institutions to hire new faculty a few at a time.

Another less-talked-about problem that comes with faculty graying and staying is "sometimes we have faculty members who are not productive but refuse to retire," Ebersole said. "You can't force people to retire. We have had some cases on our campuses of people really derelict in their duty — not performing in the classroom, not doing research, just sticking around."

When a faculty member has tenure, Ebersole said, it takes five years of documenting complaints to prove the professor is no longer effective.

William Jewell has an incentive program for faculty members who agree at age 55 to retire by 65. Those who sign get an increased contribution to their retirement account, Provost Anne Dema said.

"We had four faculty members retire last year; three had signed this agreement and one had not," Dema said. "This year we have three faculty members retiring; two signed the agreement and one had not. As a result of the last two years and a few other changes, we are bringing in 12 new faculty members this fall.

"Our faculty will be younger next year overall," Dema said.

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