Mellon grant to address faculty aging

Recent studies cited by Five Colleges, Inc. suggest that the two biggest challenges facing higher education in the decade ahead are the increasing number of faculty near retirement age, and the hiring and retention of dual-career couples.

According to Lorna M. Peterson, executive director of Five Colleges, Inc., the Mellon grant will address these two critical issues independently. The bulk of the grant ($550,000) will be used to create six new joint faculty appointments over the next five years within the five colleges in specific fields identified by the academic deans. Joint faculty appointees belong to a home institution, but have teaching obligations at all five colleges. The remaining portion of the grant will go towards establishing a dual career network for academic couples which offers regional placement services.

According to a national survey conducted in 1999 by the University of California at Los Angeles, nearly a third of the nation’s professors were, at that time, 55 years of age or older, compared with just 25 percent at the end of the 1980s. This demographic study suggests that the aging of the faculty workforce nationwide will result in an unusually large number of retirements over the next ten years.

The College is no exception, although many departments at the College, such as Psychology and Mathematics, have a healthy age distribution. “I think we have a good range of ages,” said Professor of Mathematics Daniel Velleman. “We usually just hire the best mathematicians we can find and don’t worry about specialization or age.”

In contrast, due to budget constraints, UMass has already exercised a retirement incentive that resulted in the simultaneous retirement of 123 faculty members last year.

According to Peterson, while none of the other four colleges anticipate anything on that scale, the age of their faculties suggests that the numbers of scholars likely to seek retirement over the next several years will be substantial, largely due to the expansion of college education in the baby boomer era of the 1960’s and ’70’s.

According to Peterson, the number of positions that will need to be filled will result in fierce competition among colleges and universities for recruiting, hiring and retaining younger scholars. This problem is compounded by the fact that, more and more, the spouses and life-partners of scholars are also pursuing academic careers.

Approximately 40 percent of male faculty members and 35 percent of female faculty members nationwide are married to other academics, according to an Aug. 2002 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Many of these couples make decisions about which positions to accept and which to reject based on where they can live together without sacrificing their dual-career aspiration,” according to an article on the Five Colleges, Inc. website.

The colleges currently have 12 joint appointments and three shared administrative positions. Each joint appointee teaches courses at all five campuses on a carefully crafted schedule agreed upon by a faculty steering committee.

The purpose of the shared positions will be to sustain excellence in existing departments during a critical period of transition or to build strength in new and emerging fields.

“The grant will allow us to expand the joint appointments to meet changes that are going to be going on in almost every department within the five colleges,” said Peterson. “It will allow us to preserve the aggregate offerings in the curriculum when older faculty retire. We want to make sure that we don’t suddenly lose every specialist in the field or lose important subjects that we want to continue to have covered.”

Peterson noted that the response from faculty among the five colleges has been “cautiously enthusiastic” because there is some concern that some departments might actually lose individual positions in order to preserve curricular offerings in the aggregate.

But according to Dean of Faculty Lisa Raskin, “The key point to emphasize is that five college positions will not replace positions on this campus. The five-college deans hope that future hires on the different campuses will be coordinated, so that academic interests of our faculty can be complementary … this new grant will help encourage departments to think about the long-term structure of their departments.”

As Peterson noted, “The Mellon Foundation recognizes the way the consortium works together to help address the number of faculty retirements as well as the changing nature of the curriculum. All the deans are looking forward to seeing what makes the most sense for their respective institutions.”

The five colleges will be using this grant to help the institutions in recruiting and finding a way in which dual-career couples can be satisfactorily employed.

“Because more and more academic people that we want to hire are partnered with people who are also academics, we have lost many valuable people because their partners could not find a position nearby,” said Peterson.

Approximately $50,000 will be used to fund a one-year position to explore and plan the creation of an Academic Career Network. The network’s services would include establishing a clearinghouse of information about appropriate positions available in the region, helping to match partners and spouses with professional openings on the campuses.