Older Faculty Stay On at Harvard

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

Sarah M.J. Welch

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.

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.