In the UK this week there has been a lot of discussion of pensions in the university sector and some lecturers are planning strike action to defend their existing pension schemes. That, along with a fascinating article in Chronicle by Gene C. Fant, made me think about what happens to scholars at the end of their careers. You can read the whole of Fant’s article here.
When academics are tired at the end of a long teaching term, they would probably find the idea of never retiring horrific, but I sometimes think privately that I couldn’t ever give up what I do. This attitude does cause problems though, and one issue faced by some senior managers is how to finally ask those coming to retirement age, or who might be well past it, to lay down their chalk and retire.
There are two aspects to this. First, research. Of course noone is saying that retired academics have to give up researching. Many continue publishing and speaking at conferences well into their retirement. But the question is how much support should the institution give that person to continue their work? Library privileges help and are relatively cheap; however, providing office space for former staff members might deny current members of staff access to that space and therefore hinder the running of the department.
Second: teaching, and this is the issue that Fant focuses on. Retired academics are often hired to do sessional, contractual teaching where their continued presence is essential to the running of a particular course. There is nothing wrong with this, but as Fant says, it can be difficult to encourage them to give way gracefully if a new member of staff with similar expertise comes on board.
In my experience if these matters are handled sensitively then everyone can benefit. When I started my first permanent academic job I received a great deal of advice from a retired head of department who was doing some part time teaching and his expertise helped me become a better lecturer.
This is a complicated issue and, of course, in some institutions, staff are given no choice but to retire at a certain point. Dealing with this with flexibility and sensitivity is a real challenge for those managing a department.