Don’t want to retire? Alternatives to dying on campus

October 13, 2015 Tony Bates

Tony looking old

Kaskie, B. et al. (2012) Promoting Workplace Longevity and Desirable Retirement Pathways Within Academic Institutions TIAFF-CREF Institute, March

Marcus, J. (2015) Aging faculty who won’t leave thwart universities’ attempts to cut costs The Hechinger Report, October 9

The problem

I couldn’t resist this one. Students who wish their boring old prof would just die in the middle of his lecture should be careful what they wish for: it’s increasingly likely to happen.

The problem is that old, tenured faculty just won’t quit, goddammit, now that mandatory retirement at 65 has been abolished. (I retired when there was still mandatory retirement. Three years later I got a letter from the Faculty Association saying that mandatory retirement had been abolished at UBC. I was terrified: I thought I would have to go back.)

While 36 percent of all workers plan to put off their retirements beyond the age of 65, the proportion of university and college faculty who intend to delay stepping down is more than double that, according to Kaskie et al., who are from the University of Iowa.

The Hechinger Report reports that:

It’s a big, big problem for universities that are trying to cut costs and improve productivity, making it harder for them to respond to declining enrollments and changing student demand for new kinds of majors, and blocking younger PhDs from entering the workforce.

Kaskie et al. note that:

Developing a strategic response to the continued aging of the academic workforce must become a higher priority among leaders of higher education.

They go on to suggest a number of such strategic responses:

  • wellness programs tailored for aging employees; (Yoga for mechanical engineers?)
  • offering workplace accommodations most useful to aging employees (presumably even lower teaching loads, and not after bed time)
  • developing retirement pathways varied in structure and not offered consistently to both faculty and staff. (I don’t see that one getting much traction with activist faculty).

So I’m not sure these strategies will have much effect. Old profs know when they are on to a good thing.

Solutions

Asking profs to retire early because it will save the university money is more likely to make them stay on longer, just to spite the administration. Indeed, it is the administration you would like to avoid if you can, with all those boring meetings, and the barriers to doing what you really want to do that are constantly thrown up by the administration.

So, as an old and happily retired prof, I have a couple of suggestions for my younger colleagues approaching 65 that eluded the researchers at the University of Iowa.

1. Teach online

Many profs want to stay on for the teaching. You rightly claim that after 35 years in the field, you still have much to offer. You could still do this by stepping down from full-time work, and working as an adjunct faculty teaching online, not so much for the money (you will be shocked to realise how little adjuncts are paid, and even more grateful for your more than generous pension), but for the flexibility and the contact with students.

Online teaching can be done from home, and at whatever time you like, so long as the work is covered. No more dreary commutes and no more avoiding that terrible colleague down the corridor who always buttonholes you with her latest paranoia. Teaching online will not only help keep you engaged and up to date in your subject, but the social media you learn to use may even help you to communicate with your grandchildren.

You will be surprised how satisfying online teaching is (especially if you get some training and experience before you retire.)

2. Become a consultant

This is a more personal solution and won’t work for everyone, but it sure worked for me. Many professors develop strong and valuable contacts outside the university where their expertise is needed and appreciated. You may well be the only person with the knowledge and experience in your field (and if you’re not, what have you been doing for the last 35 years?).

What’s hard for people to understand is the wonderful freedom you have as a self-employed consultant. You can – and should – tell it as it is. No more obfuscating or worrying about the consequences of speaking bluntly. That’s what you are paid for, and as a consultant you may be the only one who can speak truth to power.

I have to say that most of the time, I wasn’t saying anything that someone in the organisation didn’t know already – and listening is even more important than talking as a consultant – but often these people within the organisation who do know are not being listened to. Pay someone else a gob of money for the same advice and it’s more likely to be acted on. And if it isn’t, who cares? You just walk away at the end of the contract, thus avoiding the frustration of so many jobs when you can’t do what you want to do.

However, if you want to be successful as a consultant, there are some things you should do before you leave the university:

  • first, build up that network of external contacts who may be future clients, and develop some goodwill and ‘name recognition’ – perhaps by offering free advice over a cup of coffee;
  • start doing some serious consultancy work before you retire from the university. Most institutions will allow up to one day a week for public service or consultancies. Be careful though to avoid conflict of interest. Make sure your Dean or head of department knows what you are doing. In some circumstances, it may be necessary for contracts to be with the university, rather than you as an individual, while you are still working for the university. If so, discuss the possibility of continuing as an independent contractor when you leave, both with the external client and with your institution. Remember that there are benefits to the university in your leaving; being able to take contracts with you is then part of the negotiation;
  • find a good accountant and incorporate your consultancy company, before you leave. You need to be careful about taxes, and you also need to have a system in place for accurately tracking consultancy income and expenses. It is particularly important to keep your consultancy income and expenses clearly separate from your personal income and expenses. A good accountant can be really helpful with this. It will depend on the circumstances, but I managed to live on my pensions and invest the consultancy income, thus providing financial security well into the future, while having an extra store of money for the occasional special holiday or family gathering.

Becoming a consultant enabled me to work more or less the amount I wanted to until I was 75. Even then I only stopped working as a paid consultant to do the third solution.

3. Write a book

Yes, you’ve probably already written several academic books, but stopping to write a book when you are towards the end of a career has a number of advantages.

First, you need the time that comes when you are no longer working full time. Second, you can step back a little and look at your career’s work in a broader perspective. Probably most of the books you have written have been rather narrowly focused and technical. When you are retired you can see the big picture. Now is a chance to pull all your knowledge and experience together into a readable, more widely accessible book, a kind of lifetime perspective on a topic.

In other words, it’s your legacy. If somewhat challenging – and who doesn’t need a challenge when retiring? – writing such a book can be immensely satisfying.

Conclusion

No, it’s not a good enough reason – for you at any rate – to retire just to save the university some money. But there is life after and outside the university. I had the most satisfying years of work in my life after leaving the university, although I loved what I was doing there. And seriously, universities do need new blood – and you don’t have to spill yours to make it happen.

Previous Article
Contact North to host the next ICDE conference in Toronto in 2017
Contact North to host the next ICDE conference in Toronto in 2017

The International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) announced at the close of this year’s conference in...

Next Article
Using scenarios to develop ‘soft’ skills
Using scenarios to develop ‘soft’ skills

Boller, S. (2013) Best Practices for Using eLearning in Soft Skills Training Bottom Line Performance, July ...