Along with the graying of the general populace comes the widespread aging of America’s university faculty. In 1994, the tenure exemption of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) expired — no longer giving colleges the right to enforce mandatory retirement of faculty members at age 70.

According to a recent article on faculty age distribution in the Chronicle of Higher Education, older professors offer great depth of experience along with far-reaching institutional knowledge and strong ties to alumni for fund raising.

However, the article said, an age imbalance among faculty can pose problems. With less room for younger faculty members, departments potentially miss out on cutting-edge knowledge and novel teaching methods. Also, by later in their careers, older professors can become specialized and no longer care to teach basic introductory classes, thereby limiting the range of courses offered to students.

Over-50 crowd is growing
“WSU is seeing some impact of a graying faculty,” said Fran McSweeney, vice provost for faculty affairs. “The absolute number and percentage of faculty over 50 years of age has been steadily increasing over the last 15 years.”

Indeed, WSU data show that for full-time permanent tenured and tenure-track faculty in 2004, about 52 percent fell into age brackets 51 and older. In 1989, the number was closer to 36 percent. Yet McSweeney says the distribution is not as evident as in most other universities and is not too much of a problem for WSU.

“Approximately one third of our faculty at WSU fall into each of the three categories of assistant, associate or full professor. At many other universities, about half of the faculty will fit into the full professor rank. Full professors tend to be older. Our shortage of full professors means we have less of a concern,” she explained.

But one of the university’s administrative goals is to slowly increase the number of full professors at WSU, perhaps leading to more of a concern in the future.

Besides making room for younger professors, universities also must consider making a place for retired faculty — who often have much to contribute. At the Emeritus College at Emory University, a breakfast club helps retired professors combat the shock and isolation of suddenly being cut off from academe. Elsewhere, in exchange for mentoring and teaching a couple of classes, some retired professors may receive office space, parking privileges and other perks. Many also join the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education.

Retirement ages vary
Some WSU colleges won’t be dealing with severe retirement issues for a while, McSweeney said. Pharmacy and engineering and architecture have an overall younger faculty. Other areas, such as nursing and sciences, have a “grayer” faculty distribution.

“We used to see most people retiring between the ages of 62 to 65,” said Karl Boehmke, executive director of planning and budgeting. “But now there is a much broader age range, with some leaving as early as 44 and others staying until 74 or more.

“We are striving to provide retirement options — for both the individuals and the institution — so that people can continue to be productive for as long as they choose to be,” he said.

One of these options is the Phased Retirement Policy, where university employees — faculty and administrative professional staff — may continue working at WSU, but with fewer hours, as they gradually phase into retirement. For more information, check the Benefit Services website at www.wsu.edu/benefits/retirementinfo/phasedRetPolicy.htm.