The ‘Forever Professors,’ the case for keeping education youthful

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at 11:33 PM

You’ve probably had “one of those,” professors in your academic career. They seem to be few and far between, but they’re certainly out there, a hair too shy of being able to enter a retirement home, but old enough to be entirely jaded in regards to the generation they’re asked to teach. More often than not, these professors have tenure, essentially signifying that they are academic demagogues who have solidified their spot in teaching for as long as their hearts are still beating.

The legendary “Forever Professors,” are, as their title suggests, here to stay. Is their decision to continue teaching at all costs beneficial to the student? Or is their genuine desire to teach just being clouded by other issues like greed?

Why are these aging professors maxing out their contracts with universities? As it turns out, their allowance to do so came from a 1994 law which made the mandated retiring age for professors (70) obsolete. And while this dramatically cut back on who was discriminated against, it created a new problem for the unfortunate few who slipped between the cracks of good judgment and thus began to use the podium as a pulpit.

As it stands currently, professors can teach as long as they desire, well past 70. Since most professors seem to be pushing postponing their retirements, this creates a problem not only for students who are stuck with their archaic pedagogy, but future professors who are graduating with their M.As and Ph.Ds and have nowhere to try and apply their newly acquired knowledge.

Retirement is now a strictly personal matter, where it seems like ethical and social obligations are often set aside for the promise of a greater payroll. Thinking about the students or the institution at large seems to be something of an afterthought at best.

The Chronicle of Higher Education writer Laurie Fendrich makes a cogent remark when it comes to age and instruction: “To invoke Horace, professors can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she’ll come right back in. Aging is nature’s domain, and cannot be kneaded into a relativist cultural construct. It’s her means of leading us onto the off-ramp of employment, and eventually life.”

A case could be made for the professor along the caliber of John Keating of the movie “Dead Poets Society,” who is so fantastic at what he does that to let him go would be to cripple the foundational balance of St. Andrew’s school, the staunch Catholic institution of which he teaches. But, let’s face it, Keating is a fictional character, and even though it seems like some professors, especially the ones in the humanities, only become more brilliant with age, the inconvenient reality is that they’re relatively rare.

In our experience, it seems that professors seem to become less and less tolerant as they age; less willing to hear from their students’ own philosophies and more willing to assert their own. Even though the professor is the voice of authority in the room, to dismiss their students’ thoughts as frivolous or irrelevant is to cheapen the education each college should be offering their enrollees.

According to a Pew Poll, the average age of a tenured professor is now 55, but this number is on the rise. The age of professors 65 and older has more than doubled between 2000 and 2011. It is only when you consider that professors between the ages of 49 and 67 plan to either delay their retirement or not retire at all, that the problem clearly reveals itself. Depending on how you perceive human nature, there are a finite number of reasons for why a professor would want to remain in academia that long. As far as we can tell, the list can be boiled-down to three concise reasons: 1) The professor genuinely loves teaching, and enjoys interacting with their students, encouraging them to tap into their highest potential, 2.) The professor has lived outside of their means or has a family they wish to continue to financially support or 3.) The professor is motivated by greed to continue teaching in order to acquire as much capital as possible.

Remaining in academia past 70 not only safeguards any given professor’s financial assets, but provides them with the opportunity to be immune to the professional uncertainties that come part in parcel with having a job where, if your performance is consistently low, the shield of tenure can be raised to stymie questions of “hey, when are you going to retire?”

This argument was not constructed along the premises that the only academics who should be teaching are 30-something recent masters and doctoral students. Rather, this argument is suggesting that although younger doesn’t always signify better, it does signify currency — a modern day relevance that is critical to every major regardless of the field.

When you consider that faculty members in the range of 70 not only pose a detrimental force to students, but the financial intricacies of the academic institution, the unfortunate reality that universities who are not sufficiently endowed will suffer for keeping senior staff on the payroll becomes evident. From their higher salaries, to their higher health care costs and employer- matched retirement savings, keeping the older faculty in the classroom hurts more than is necessary.

Perhaps the most unfortunate message being sent by universities that keep their aging professors is that they limit their institution’s chance at evolving with the times. Healthy departments are the departments that are comprised of a mix of ages, but walk through almost any department on campus and you’ll be hard pressed to find many tenured faculty members under the age of 50. Young faculties are full of energy, ambition and fresh ideas. If these attributes of young faculty were paired with the wisdom and comprehensive understanding that tenured professors have of their department’s mission, the way classrooms are taught could be revitalized.

And while the amazing work and spirit some professors bring to their field is notable, they should not delude themselves of the reality that even though educational institutions implement a softer business model than the world outside of academia, it is still necessary for replacements — a new semester, a new face, and new beginnings for young professionals and departments alike.

We need to start looking out for adjunct professors like Dr. Wanda Evans-Brewer, who was recently featured by news outlet Upworthy, for being on welfare. The study conducted by Upworthy concluded that 31 percent of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line. These adjuncts are often contacted to work at universities because there are no expected benefits once the courses they teach are completed. Nearly 51 percent of college professors are adjunct. Between the years of 1970 and 2008, adjunct pay has decreased 49 percent, yet university president salaries continue to rise by at least 35 percent. In 2010, 33,655 Ph.D. holders filed for food stamps.

In an era where 1 in 4 part-time faculty members require public assistance, is it reasonable to keep neglecting to confront the problem? 

Our Viewpoint is voted on and discussed by the staff of The Spectator.

Tags: education

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