A recent post to the Thesis Whisperer proposed that there should be a mandatory retirement age for “older academics”. The focus of the Whisperer blog is to offer advice to younger academics and I sometimes wonder whether posts such as this are the result of a lack of perspective, honest beliefs, or an attempt to stir up some interest in the site.
I do qualify as an “older academic” and for the record I did make the decision to retire. The benefits of age as an employed academic include perspective and institutional memory. I do remember my thoughts related to senior faculty members when I was young. I cannot say that they should “just leave”, but I did feel that the decision making apparatus of my department vested too much power in their hands. At the time, there was a top down promotion control process in that those at a higher rank voted on the promotion of those at a lower rank. This did seem to me a barrier to some kinds of change and I did work to change the process. I did not object to different individuals having different opinions, but I did object to different individuals having different levels of influence in decision making.
There are certainly examples of individuals who stay too long and do not contribute. However, an example here or there is often the basis for flawed anecdotal reasoning. This is one of the basic lessons researchers learn. It would be equivalent to suggesting that young scholars with young children cannot respond in the same way to job demands as more senior and less encumbered faculty members. Clearly, there are specific cases that fit this concern. As an academic culture we both acknowledge certain differences and take a broader view. It may take some time to take a less personal view.
Did I think when I approached retirement that I had limitations relative to many younger colleagues? Yes, I did. I felt that my field have moved to more sophisticated statistical procedures that were not part of my training, but were important in the kind of research I was doing. On the other hand, the pressures of tenure tend to engage younger scholars in piece-meal research. The pressure is often based on publication count than on significance or working toward a larger goal. I assume that it is the tenured junior faculty members that the Thesis Whisperer assumes are being limited.
Regarding the lack of innovation and openness to new ideas the blog post addresses, again this is likely an individual difference. None of my junior colleagues were bloggers and none generated professional content for the general good. They work on publications or grants and that is pretty much the focus of their writing. I am not certain whether this is good or bad, but it is certainly not the impression provided in the post I am evaluating. Individuals at all ages respond to the priorities imposed on them.
I do recognize that I held a senior position that tied up salary money. On the other hand, it took many years and sacrifices to get to this point. The present system evens things out over time. I reached the point at which I felt comfortable – others may not get to the same point at the same time. If I could change one thing about the way the seniority system works, I would allow for greater flexibility. Rather than retire from higher ed because I was tired of scholarship, I retired to focus on my personal scholarly interests. No one must feel obligated to pay me for what I now produce. I can pay myself or rely on my ability to compete in the market. My interest in technology and technology applied to education did not fit well with my teaching assignments in psychology. Educational institutions tend to be divided into small clusters of individuals allowing considerable pressure to be exerted within these clusters and without allowing for a broader perspective.