Quit Picking on Old Professors

Bullying boomers into retirement won’t help the sad state of higher education in this country.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

This week, academia is in a frenzy—well, an erudite tizzy—over an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education by recently retired art professor Laurie Fendrich. In the piece, Fendrich, who’s 66, lauds her own decision to leave her position at Hofstra—and characterizes her aging colleagues as doddering dinosaurs who are clogging up the academic pipeline.

As in other professions, baby boomers “hanging on” past retirement age is a hot-button issue in higher education—and it’s easy to see why. In the university, the over-65s are the final generation for whom teaching college has provided a stable, (somewhat) respected, remunerative middle-class existence. They’ve had benefits and job security for longer than most of their younger colleagues have been alive. And they didn’t have to work nearly as hard to get all that—back in the ’60s and ’70s, when most of them began their careers, requirements for hiring and tenure were a fraction of what they are now. (It was also legal to stipulate that your department wanted a “male between 25 & 45,” so the good old days are a matter of perspective.)

The logic, as espoused by Fendrich and echoed sotto voce in faculty lounges everywhere: If only these relics would stop wasting space in the Ivory Tower, there would be more room up there for the rest of us. “When professors continue to teach past 70,” Fendrich explains, “they behave in exactly the same way as when we decide to drive a car on a national holiday. Who among us stops to connect the dots between our decision to drive and a traffic jam, or that traffic jam and global warming?” But academics who believe this are wrong, and Fendrich, in all of her well-meaning martyrdom, is wrong, too.

Many of these opinions are, for starters, ageist and based in anecdote: Most older professors, Fendrich insists, are exactly like her total caricature of a former colleague, whose entire feeble person she chucks mercilessly under the next bus to Boca: He’s an email-phobe and “a terribly easy grader,” whose primary contribution to intellectual discourse is to wag his finger and proclaim, “The only good artist is a dead artist.” Yes, this one guy certainly does sound like a weirdo, so let’s bully everyone his age into the Springfield Retirement Castle.

Furthermore, apparently oldies’ delusions of relevance are bolstered by the “fresh-faced 18-year-olds” continually replenished each year, which “causes the bulk of the professoriate to feel as if we are hardly aging at all.” Speak for yourself, ma’am—I’m a veritable spring chicken at 38, and the fact that my students don’t know who Urkel is makes me feel like I’ve got one foot in the crypt.

Fendrich’s primary substantive claim is that “faculty who delay retirement harm students, who in most cases would benefit from being taught by someone younger than 70, even younger than 65.” Younger professors, she says, are simply “more likely to be current in their fields and to bring that currency into their teaching.”

Here’s where she’s dead (or, at 66, almost dead) wrong. Students may benefit more from a sagacious senior than they do from many a thirsty, young tenure-track careerist. After all, the Old, with his tenure firmly in hand and few concerns about his future, actually has time for his students; that 33-year-old is on the terminal brink of nervous collapse under the weight of too much research expectation. Perpetually on the market for a more prestigious job, she’s been counseled over and over again not to “waste” too much time on teaching.

To master your subject at the level necessary to make it come alive to undergraduates, you do not need to be “current” with the latest research trends (which, of course, will be out of vogue in three years anyhow). Undergrads have a tough enough time with the basics of Nabokov; whether the multiple historiographies of some butterfly archive in Iceland has bearing upon the materiality of Otherness will go over their heads. Top research universities with Ph.D. programs might be a different story—but they’re not where most of America goes to college, and thus not where most of the graying professoriate works.

The final arguments from Fendrich—and the boomer-blamers who agree with her—are that old professors cost universities too much money, with their pensions and benefits and whatnot, and that they are clinging to their jobs out of sheer self-interest, thus directly preventing recent Ph.D.s like me from entering the field in full-time jobs. Listen. Even if the alleged “wave” of boomer retirements—promised to every generation of Ph.D.s since Foreigner topped the charts—were to actually happen, guess what? It would do jack squat to fix the dire situation in which American higher education finds itself. It would probably even make things worse. So as a “young” person whose very academic career was allegedly thwarted by all these selfish coots, I implore you: Leave the coots alone.

Because even if everything Fendrich says is true, I cannot emphasize enough how much it doesn’t matter. Here is the state of American higher education today: Administrators earn $300,000 a year to fundraise for new football skyboxes (and don’t get me started on the football coaches). Any fleeting thought about students is whether the “customer experience” is optimal enough (does your institution have a water park yet?). Faculty, meanwhile, continue to be unfairly vilified as the source of high tuition prices, when that could not be further from the truth (high tuition prices are largely the direct result of state disinvestment; more faculty are, in fact, working at terrible wages than ever before).

Indeed, the one demographic that would benefit most from the coerced retirement of the last generation of real professors (and, for that matter, the pitting of age against youth)? Administrators, many of whom can’t wait to replace everyone with cheap, disposable adjuncts. When those blue hairs retire (or are carried out of their offices feet first), it is likely that their tenure lines will never be seen again.

It is, of course, highly problematic that the median age for a tenured faculty member in the U.S. is now 55. But that’s not because the old professors won’t leave their jobs. It’s because in the new culture of academia, all professors, young or old, are thought of as obsolete afterthoughts: interchangeable hired help at the resort. So let those relics be. Quite a few of them are actually great at their jobs. They’re the last holdouts in a dying institution, and when they do finally “get out of the way,” what they make room for won’t be pretty.