Sunday, December 31, 2006

Old Professors

Jonah Lehrer is an editor for Seed magazine. On his blog, The Frontal Cortex, he has resuscitated an old argument that I though we had settled. The issue is whether Professors over 60 should be put out on an ice flow to make room for, presumably smarter, young scientists [Old Professors].

The article defines old Professors as those over 60. I'm going to assume that young Professors are under 40. Since I'm 60 years old, that makes me still middle-aged and in a good position to present a totally unbiased opinion concerning the stupidity and naivety of youth.

It might be helpful to have some examples of old dotty Professors who clearly lost all ability to contribute to science once they turned 61. In the field of evolutionary biology we have; Ernst Mayr (101 when he died last year), Jared Diamond (69), E.O. Wilson (77), Richard Dawkins (65), and Stephen Jay Gould (61 when he died in 2002).


My faculty union and the University of Toronto recently concluded an agreement to abolish mandatory retirement at age 65 and the Province of Ontario has recently passed legislation abolishing mandatory retirement in the public sector. Let's not argue about whether Professors should be forced to leave their jobs on their 65th birthday. This is a rights issue. It is ethically wrong to discriminate on the basis of age. There is no justification for such discrimination in this day and age and it's about time that we did away with it. (Most American schools abolished mandatory retirement many years ago.)

Are there any conceivable arguments for reinstating mandatory retirement that meet the test of rationality? No there aren't. So why is there still a debate?

Lehrer quotes from an article in the Boston Globe on the Graying of US Academia. The article points out that since the abolition of forced retirement, the average age of Professors is increasing (duh!) and this is a bad thing.

Why is it a bad thing? The perceived wisdom is that old Professors are taking up space that should be going to younger faculty. Well, it turns out that this isn't very significant. It will always be the case that a new faculty member will be hired every time a Professor retires. Assuming a steady state, the rate of new hires won't be much different if some of the Professors stay on past 65 or 70. (Less than 25% of Professors continue to work after they turn 65.) That argument doesn't really cut the mustard. The real problem is that the number of Professors is not expanding very much so that new opportunities for junior faculty aren't being created. In our department, for example, budget cuts are forcing us to cut back on the number of Professors.

But even if the argument were true there is no ethical way to improve the situation by getting rid of old Professors. You can't just knock on the door of Professor Dawkins and tell him to get the hell out of Oxford because there's some 32 year old post-doc who wants his job. Be reasonable, people.

There's an underlying assumption in these discussions that I find troubling. If you read John Lehrer's posting and the comments that follow, you'll see lots of discussion about whether old Professors can still do their job. Lots' of people think that young Professors are better teachers, for example. That's nonsense. I've not seen any evidence to support that assumption in my forty years of experience in universities. Some young Professors are excellent teachers and some aren't. Some old Professors are excellent teachers and some aren't.

I can tell you one thing that seems to be a general rule. Whenever we sit down as a group to discuss teaching, the older Professors bring a great deal more to the table than the younger ones. I was reminded of this last month when we discussed changes to our undergraduate and graduate programs. This is a time when wisdom counts. My older colleagues know how to effect real change and they know how to avoid fads that will get us into trouble later on. They know how to work the system for maximum benefit.

(I should point out that in science departments teaching is a minor part of the job so it doesn't play a big role in deciding whether old Professors are better than young ones.)

Administrative tasks are a major part of the average Professor's job. There's no question about the fact that the longer you've been at a university the more capable you are of handling administrative tasks. This applies to local jobs like departmental chair, associate chair, and managing undergraduate and graduate programs. It also applies to higher level jobs like chairing university committees and becoming a Dean or assistant Dean.

Research is the big bogeyman. There's this persistent myth out there that young people are ever so much better at it that the old fuddy-duddys who already have one foot in the grave. There is no evidence to support this myth, even in mathematics where it originated. If you want to maximize research productivity in a department you don't do it by forcing out highly productive scientists just because they turn 65.

Please don't misinterpret me. Of course there are old Professors who are not being productive. There are ways of encouraging them to retire and if they don't take the hint there are ways of firing them even if they have tenure. This won't be required nearly as often as people imagine, but it will happen and it should probably happen more often. On the other hand, let's not forget that there are lots of younger people who don't make the cut. It's not a direct function of age.

This is an issue that demands more sensitivity than it gets. I find it very unsettling to hear people calling for the firing of old Professors just because we need to make room for younger ones. What do you imagine those old Professors are going to do when they are fired? In many cases they have been working for much lower wages than they could have gotten in the private sector and they still have mortgages to pay and kids to put through college. They often have decent pensions but still not enough to maintain their lifestyle. (I'm not talking about Harvard, I'm talking about state schools.) Do we really want to move to a cut-throat corporate model where youth and lower wages trump wisdom and maturity? Is that the kind of university we want?

5 comments:

  1. Old profs also serve another important function, that of targets of younger up and comers.

    This was a problem at UC Santa Cruz when it was started up. There was a meeting there talking about the campus and how it had grown and what was coming up -- this was about 20 years ago when they were expanding a lot. The meeting broke up into small discussion tables, and I happened to be at small table with Dean E. McHenry, the first chancellor there. He told us about how he and Clark Kerr had deliberately hired on mostly young profs instead of the usual mix of young and old. The idea behind this was that they'd get new ideas and less resistance to implementing them. Good on paper.

    The problem was with academic infighting, which always happens. In a normal setting a lot of it would get directed at the old profs by the younger profs. A younger prof with a grudge against an older prof could always be content that the old guy could simply be waited out; how long could they last, after all?

    But at UCSC in the earlier years there were no old profs, so the infighting went lateral -- and got, at times, pretty bloody (I was peripherally involved in one of these fights and saw the results; it didn't help anyone -- not the attacker, not the attacked, not the department). McHenry said this was their biggest mistake by far in setting up the new campus.

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  2. The perceived wisdom is that old Professors are taking up space that should be going to younger faculty. Well, it turns out that this isn't very significant. It will always be the case that a new faculty member will be hired every time a Professor retires. Assuming a steady state, the rate of new hires won't be much different if some of the Professors stay on past 65 or 70. (Less than 25% of Professors continue to work after they turn 65.)

    Nearly 30 years ago this issue rose at the private college in which I was a professor. A math prof and I put together a Markov model of the composition of the faculty through time, starting with the current faculty age composition, and ran a number of alternatives assuming various ages of retirement. In all of them, after a period of transition, the faculty stabilized at a more or less higher mean age (with only single digit differences in years), but with virtually the same flow-through rate.

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  3. rbh, thanks for confirming what I had calculated using my spreadsheet. When equilibrium is reestablished, it turns out there are hardly any diffences in the rate of hiring whether you force Professors to retire at 65 or allow them to retire whenever they want.

    I wish we could put an end to this particular myth.

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  4. If you think it's bad in the academic world, share a thought for the IT industry. That has plenty of idiot managers who think anyone over 45 is past it. (Those are the managers busy repeating the mistakes of 10 years ago; and of 20 years ago ...)

    A few years ago one of the bigger consultancies decided that anyone over 50 had to be pushed out. The small consultancy I worked for was enlightened enough to snap up several of them, who were of course very good indeed.

    Anyway, I'm 48 and I don't reckon I'm even middle-aged until my son can beat me at squash - I think I've got 3 or 4 years still to go.

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  5. When equilibrium is reestablished, it turns out there are hardly any diffences in the rate of hiring whether you force Professors to retire at 65 or allow them to retire whenever they want.

    How can there be *any* differences in the equilibrium rate of hiring? Once you average out the year-on-tear variability caused by population structure (and the shift between policies is just a population structure effect), then the equilibrium hiring rate is entirely specified by the equilibrium retirement rate - one per person.

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