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Older Faculty Stay On at Harvard

Ten years after the end of mandatory retirement, the Faculty has aged

Erving Research Professor of Chemistry William Klemperer ’50, who has been on the Harvard faculty since 1954, teaches Freshman Seminar 22j, “Seeing by Spectroscopy” yesterday.
Erving Research Professor of Chemistry William Klemperer ’50, who has been on the Harvard faculty since 1954, teaches Freshman Seminar 22j, “Seeing by Spectroscopy” yesterday.
By Rebecca D. O’brien, Crimson Staff Writer

The country’s oldest University is getting older.

Today, seven percent of Harvard’s tenured professors are over age 70. With more professors staying on to teach well into their 70s, the average age of faculty members is rising, and the age gap between faculty and students is widening.

The shift in demography can be traced back to a law that went into effect a decade ago.

On Oct. 17, 1986, Congress amended the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, making it illegal for most employers to set mandatory retirement ages and requiring them to give equal employment protection to elderly workers. Universities, though, were allowed to continue enforcing mandatory retirement at age 70 until Jan. 1, 1994.

In his annual letter to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), released Monday, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby calls for a “rejuvenation” of the faculty, a push to recruit younger and more diverse junior and senior professors. But in the meantime, many professors fear the change in demographics might have adverse effects on pedagogy, faculty diversity and hiring.

Legal Changes

The law has meant that the Class of 2007 can now be taught by members of the Class of 1947.

Today, 36 percent of full time faculty across the nation are 55 years old or older, compared with 24 percent in 1989, according to national surveys conducted by Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA.

At Harvard, these numbers are even more pronounced: 36 percent of the faculty, according to Kirby’s letter, are now 60 or older. Thirty-one percent of the faculty are age 50 or below, 7 percent of the faculty are older than 70.

While the average retirement age at Harvard still hovers at around age 70, of the professors who have turned 70 since 1994, a quarter are still active members of the faculty.

At the time of the amendment’s passage, University officials across the country expressed fears that the bill would disrupt the life cycle of higher education, restricting healthy turnover of professors, ideas and control.

With no mechanisms in place to ensure retirement, older professors would stay on longer and, many argue, their presence would restrict the promotion and recruitment of younger faculty members. Harvard’s 656 person Faculty—including associate, assistant and tenured professors—is already weighted toward the tenured ranks: 70 percent of these professors are tenured.

Many schools addressed the new law by putting initiatives in place to encourage retirement and maintain healthy levels of faculty turnover.

Some schools created formal retirement incentive plans, offering professors a year’s salary to leave before age 70.

Harvard, after some consideration, took a different approach.

The administration acts on an individual basis, providing older professors with consultation and advice on retirement options. In addition, Harvard continues to provide office space for professors with emeritus status, which is reserved for professors who are no longer required to teach, but remain affiliated with the University.

Ten years after the law took effect at Harvard, many of the fears about the effects on faculty turnover have proved less grave than many had anticipated.

“There were all these dire predictions, and most of them didn’t come true,” Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy Dennis F. Thompson says. “Certainly in the humanities and social sciences, people tend to retire at age 70 anyway. Really not much happened at all noteworthy.”

Closer to Home

But while Harvard students can still take courses from the country’s most experienced academics, there have been some changes, both feared and unforeseen, that have altered the composition of the University.

Some faculty and students say they fear that the lingering presence of some professors restricts hiring of younger faculty members and stymies change within departments.

Apart from faculty diversity, some fear that the high number of older professors may stunt faculty recruitment and broaden the age gap between students and professors.

“For a constant faculty size, at least for the tenured faculty, who almost never leave Harvard, that means the average age of the faculty must increase, the frequency of appointments has to be lower and the age gap between the faculty and the students has got to grow,” says Professor of Astronomy Robert Kirshner.

In addition, FAS currently suffers from a space crunch exacerbated by the lack of turnover in several departments, which may have been exacerbated by the continued work of older professors.

But while administrators worry about the implications on hiring, pedagogy, space and departmental balance between tenured and non-tenured professors, they have presented no systematic plans for addressing the issue beyond individual consultation with aging professors.

“The change in the law has undoubtedly had an effect,” former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles says. “We had to develop institutional habits for how we handle ourselves and, after 10 years, things are still being shaped.”

Going Strong

A snowy January evening finds Erving Research Professor of Chemistry William Klemperer ’50 in his office in the basement of Mallinckrodt laboratory buildings, with two graduate students by his side.

Klemperer, who has been teaching at Harvard since 1954, with only three years on leave, maneuvers the quiet office space comfortably.

“I aged quite nicely,” Klemperer says. “I am still active. I am very happy.”

While Klemperer technically retired in 2002, he belongs to the subcategory of emeritus professors known as “research” professors who lead research groups and still hold office space. Klemperer led a freshman seminar on spectroscopy last year—which is offered again this spring—for which he offered tours of some of Harvard’s laboratories.

Klemperer, 76, says that while he was “concerned” at first about the law against mandatory retirement, he now believes the benefits of the law outweigh the problems.

Klemperer says that while there is a drop off in ground-breaking work after age 60, he feels he has been able to contribute to education and research even beyond those years.

Chair of the History department Akira Iriye agrees that many professors are capable of being productive researchers and excellent teachers past age 70.

“I have noticed that [some] people here who [do not] retire and continue to teach still do very well and they are popular teachers,” Iriye says, pointing to Warren Professor of American History Ernest R. May, who continues to lead sections for his Core class History A-80, “The Cold War.”

“Ernest May is an example of someone over 70 who is just so young still and so energetic in teaching. He is really quite ageless,” Iriye says.

A Moral Reasoning course taught by Buttenwieser University professor Stanley Hoffmann last year drew almost 300 students to its first meeting, and applications to his freshman seminar numbered near 100.

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, who, at age 70, is the only female professor above the former retirement age, still attracts hundreds of applicants to her various poetry seminars.

Professor of Physics John Huth, who also chairs the department, suggests that professors who are involved in a broader variety of interests early in their careers tend to enjoy longer and more productive careers.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that the characters of people that tend to be productive after age 65 or 70 tend to be more eclectic types,” Huth says. “You can see that form from a younger age—professors with a more broad range of interests tend to have greater longevity.”

Almost 50 years at Harvard haven’t slowed Weatherhead University Professor Samuel Huntington, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1948 and still teaches undergraduate lecture courses, writes books and serves as the chair of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.

“When I was approaching 70, people told me that I should retire,” Huntington says. “But that feeling that one had a responsibility to retire seems to have faded. There has been a general shift of views about age in this country. People live longer, they stay healthier longer.”

Slowing Down

But not all professors are embracing the idea of an older faculty.

At age 73, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 is a beneficiary of the 1986 amendment—he continues to teach lecture courses, advise students and write books. He still attends almost every Harvard football home game and Faculty meeting. Nonetheless, the contrarian professor, one of few outspoken conservatives on the Harvard campus, says he believes that professors ought to be forced to retire at a certain age.

“I’ve slowed down for sure,” he says, noting that it is possible to stay productive past 70, “for a short while.”

Mansfield says that without the law, professors might not recognize the advent of senility.

“It’s part of senility to not believe it when it’s happening to you,” Mansfield says. “Being old is not great. Things start to go wrong and you don’t always notice it.”

Klemperer shares Mansfield’s concern.

“It’s very hard to tell how doddering you are,” he says.

Lyman Professor of Biology Andrew Biewener agrees with Mansfield that the majority of professors accomplish their most innovative work earlier rather than later.

“I think in any field age brings a certain perspective and wisdom,” Biewener says. “But as you move along in age you are less and less able to do the daily research activity.”

Some students say they have similar concerns about the productivity of older professors.

Sarah G. Heyward ’06 says her freshman seminar, taught by a professor older than 70, was both a positive and negative experience.

“I took no notes because nothing was ever really said—he left everything in our hands,” she says. “Some people complained that he didn’t really know any of our names or anything. It wasn’t a bad class, it was just sort of ridiculous at times,” Heyward says.

But she says she valued his individual advice.

“I found him really nice and very helpful when I met with him outside of class, to brainstorm paper ideas or something,” she says. “But during class he sort of just let us talk and then when he talked it was almost always just stories about his…interesting life.”

Ari D. Brettman ’04, a history of science concentrator, says that in his experience, older professors tend to teach large lecture courses, while the younger crowd work more on their own work.

“I suspect that when the older professors teach it’s because they want to,” Brettman says. “Younger professors, especially ones who haven’t made tenure yet, are generally more concerned with succeeding in the laboratory and achieving eminence in research than succeeding in the lecture hall. The older profs have already made a name for themselves and, perhaps, have more time and greater inclination for teaching.”

“Dead Wood”

Other professors such as Mansfield say their real concern is that the “dead wood” in the faculty will restrict change by preventing younger faculty from moving in, leading to stagnation in the department.

“The law restricts change,” Mansfield says. “It’s not only that old people stay on too long, but that younger ones are excluded.”

Kirby, too, acknowledges that the law might have created some impediments to hiring.

“[It] did liberate us from some artificial constraints but does of course pose challenges in hiring,” Kirby said in an interview last fall.

According to Associate Dean of the Faculty Vincent J. Tompkins, the lack of mandatory positions for new faculty members means his office must closely monitor the ratio of junior and senior faculty members.

“There is not that kind of literal blocking of promotions, but if the average length of stay is longer, then the aggregate effect is fewer faculty spots opening up each year,” Tompkins says.

According to Biewener, not only does having older professors in the department hinder junior faculty appointments, but the department is guided and defined by older professors—a dangerous trend, Biewener says.

“In terms of allowing growth and the continuation of scholarship, clearly the future belongs to the younger people in the field,” he says. “It is important to be able to recruit younger faculty members and not be constrained for space.”

Biewener says he opposes the elimination of the mandatory retirement age, and would vote to bring it back if he could. Though older faculty could have a role in departments, he says, that role should be limited.

Other professors agree that the lingering influence of existing professors is a significant problem.

Thompson says older professors can be dangerous to the health of the institution if they continue to throw their weight around.

“It is precisely these faculty members who are prominent and active at age 65 to 70 who are the problem,” Thompson says. “They dominate departments and set the agenda for work being done in undergraduate programs….Hanging around is blocking the growing influence of younger faculty.”

Many see this trend already happening across the University.

Five of the 17 tenured professors in the astronomy department will be over 72 by 2006, a number that concerns the department chair, Professor of Astronomy Lars Hernquist.

These five professors have chairs that sprung from a former partnership between Harvard and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. This partnership has foundered in recent years, and there is no immediate way to replace the professors who occupy these chairs once they retire. Once these five professors retire, the chairs will disappear, leaving the department stunted and without a mechanism to replace the professorships.

“We’re kind of in an unusual situation,” Hernquist says. “In a sense, it’s a good thing there’s no retirement age…but I can imagine there are other departments where this would be an issue.”

But some professors say age is more valued in astronomy than in other scientific disciplines.

“In the sciences, the assumption is that young people are the most effective workers,” Kirshner says. “Math and theoretical physics are examples where that’s the legend, if not an established fact. In observational astronomy, that is demonstrably not true—there was a reasonably good longitudinal study of astronomers that showed their publication records, anyway, did not decline with age up to about 70.”

Kirshner adds that not all fields are the same in this respect.

“But in a fast-changing field, it’s hard to argue that accumulated knowledge outweighs dexterity with the latest tools,” he says.

Cracking Down

Even before the 1986 law went into effect, the University took proactive measures to address the predicted effects of the law.

In 1992, then-Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles established a committee under former Provost Jerry R. Green to “address the consequences for the Faculty of the federal law eliminating mandatory retirement.”

Some of the recommendations that came out of that committee included a commitment to post-retirement health plans, graduated retirement and increased perks of emeritus status. The committee investigated early retirement incentive plans, which were already in effect at other institutions, but concluded that the legal and financial effects of these plans were not beneficial to the University.

At the time, Knowles asked the University Retirement Benefits Office to offer seminars to professors on retirement planning.

To this day, the productivity of all professors is closely monitored.

Faculty members are required to submit a summary of their activities, from advising and teaching to research and writing.

“The same evaluation standards are used for people regardless of age,” Kirby says. “I don’t, can’t, shouldn’t have different procedures for different ages.”

One mechanism put into place to help ensure the circulation of professors is the so-called “mortgage system”: a department can hire replacement professors before the senior faculty member retires, creating a temporary “bulge” in the number of faculty members allocated to the department,

But when individual initiative does not suffice, and professors’ resources fail them, it is often the role of chairs, deans and the administration to take a more proactive role in encouraging retirement.

“Generally it’s amicable, but when it’s not consultative it can be ugly,” Huth says of the process of easing into retirement.

Biewener says that the issue of retirement comes up frequently at meetings with Kirby’s office, science chair meetings, and in individual discussions.

But Thompson says he believes the deans are not active in coaxing professors to retire.

“Generally, the deans haven’t done very much. [Secretary of the Faculty] John Fox would go around and tell people information and hints that might influence their decisions,” Thompson laughs. “We used to say in my department: ‘Here comes the grim reaper, coming and knocking on the door to take you away.’”

Most professors interviewed for this article say they feel the administration is particularly helpful in having “productive dialogue” with older professors with regards to retirement.

Discussion, rather than retirement incentive plans, has been the administration’s individual-based approach to faculty retirement.

“It is a matter of finding the prudent way in each case to tell someone that he’s past it,” Mansfield says. “That’s a difficult message to deliver… [but] when it becomes a matter of living on your name, you should retire,” Mansfield says.

Knowles agrees that such diplomacy poses a challenge.

“The challenge for the University is how to encourage those who, for genetic or environmental reasons, have powers that are fading, to retire to make room for younger more vibrant colleagues while both obeying the law and allowing them to continue to enjoy the services of distinguished and uplifting scholars,” Knowles says.

“Age is a judgment call,” Huth says. “I hope we all have some degree of good taste.”

And many feel that professors themselves should take the initiative to retire at a modest age.

“It should become a professional norm, a matter of ethics, even if you’re still as effective as you already were, to retire by about 72,” Thompson says.

Iriye says he will retire at the end of spring semester in anticipation of his 70th birthday in October.

“I decided some time ago that when I reached the age 70, I would retire,” says Iriye, who also chairs the department. “I have been teaching since 1959, not simply at Harvard, and I have enjoyed my teaching, but I have felt that I have done what I wanted to do in terms of teaching grad students and undergraduates. I felt that I would like to now concentrate on reading and writing and publishing as well as other things like traveling with my wife.”

Thus, while some of his colleagues may struggle with the issue of retirement, Iriye seems to have it figured out.

He says that he plans to retire to the libraries to continue his work, a “transition period” between retirement age and “old age.”

“For [humanities professors], the most important thing is library access,” Iriye says. “So as long as we can work in Widener, it’s okay.”

—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at


A look at how Harvard’s Faculty has been affected by changes in Federal Law

1948: Helen Maud Cam becomes Harvard’s first female tenured professor.

1965: Kenan Professor of Government arvey C. Mansfield ’53 receives tenure.

OCTOBER 1967: Congress passes the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which protected people age 40 and up from age-related employment discrimination.

DECEMBER 1984: Helen Vendler, currently the only professor over age 70, accepts tenure at Harvard.

OCTOBER 1986: Congress amends the ADEA to prohibit mandatory retirement in most professions. Higher education is granted an extension—they can enforce mandatory retirement until 1994.

1993: History professor Bernard Bailyn turns 70 just months before the January cutoff. He retires to emeritus status, but continues to teach and write.

JANUARY 1, 1994: Universities are no longer able to mandate retirement. With the “cap” removed, professors enjoy essentially unlimited tenure.

FEBRUARY 2004: .Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby announces in his annual letter that Harvard’s faculty is older now than it was ten years ago.

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