Emeritus Issues

Nov 23 2010 Published by under colleagues

A reader who is a department chair at a small liberal arts college (SLAC) wonders what to do with professors emeriti who are well-meaning but who have not found productive ways to spend their days without distracting the more-busy and without wreaking minor havoc on various parts of the department infrastructure. This reader's specific questions are:

...would you (and how would you) involve emeriti faculty in hiring interviews?
...would you invite them to faculty-student events?
...would you give them specific roles in the dept so they'd have something productive to do instead of distracting those of us with actual work to do?

Escaping meandering conversations from emeriti requires some skill. My husband has such skills; I do not. When faced with this situation, my husband will say "I don't have time to talk to you" and either walk away or turn back to what he is doing, and his visiting emeritus will leave. In the same situation, I will say, gently "Actually, I really need to get back to doing X now", but somehow a new topic of conversation will be found. So I am not a good person to be giving advice about this.

Advice from other department chairs and/or SLAC faculty would probably be more useful than anything I can suggest, but I can describe some of my experiences and opinions, just to get things started.

My experiences have included the entire range from being fortunate to interact as an undergraduate student with an extraordinarily kind and helpful emeritus to having being abused as a graduate student by an insane and bitter emeritus who used his retirement years to seek revenge on those he hated, molest a few more women while he could, and try to ensure that his famous name would forever be slapped on publications, even after his death. In between have been some emeriti of the mostly benign sort, except for a tendency to start seemingly endless conversations at inopportune times. There was also an emeritus professor who would go into my lab without asking and use/trash stuff, and I did not like that.

In terms of the questions posed, I think that the answers are going to vary widely depending on the specific cases involved. There are certainly situations in which the involvement of emeriti in many aspects of a department is beneficial for all concerned. In terms of interviews, emeriti have no decision-making role, but I can recall various circumstances (as an interviewee and interviewer) when it was very helpful to have emeriti-interviewee meetings. Some departments go into deep mourning when their Nobel laureate(s) or their National Academy members retire, and continue to put these illustrious people on display for visitors. And when the inevitable happens, some have probably considered taxidermy, or wax statues, for their famous deceased faculty.

I digress. The above assumes an emeritus professor is sane, interesting, has a useful perspective on something, or is, at the very least, famous. If none of those are the case and if an interviewee-emeritus interaction is likely to be strange or boring for the interviewee, then by all means avoid arranging such an appointment. Even when I am just a visiting speaker at a university and I find myself sitting in some remote office-closet spending a half hour talking to an isolated emeritus who sighs and mutters amidst the towering stacks of reprints he can't bear to throw out, I wonder whether my hosts were really so desperate to fill every slot on my schedule that they think this would be better than just letting me walk around or sit in a corner with my laptop for a while.

So, I think whether/how to involve emeriti in the academic life of a department must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Emeritus professors are a varied group, just as they were before retirement.

But what about the specific case of a loquacious emeritus who putters around a department being something of a nuisance? Without being patronizing about it, maybe there is some constructive way to engage the emeritus in an academic activity, such as helping students or helping write a newsletter. Maybe the busy, active faculty can be blunt-but-polite about not having time for long conversations and then suggesting something that would be a big help to do (somewhere else). Maybe, but I know that it's not so easy for some of us to do this effectively.

Do others have any useful advice?

12 responses so far

  • AnonProf says:

    In my department, the overwhelming majority of emeriti are great. The more of their time we can get, the better, so I'm a big fan of involving emeriti.

    Of course some of them have their, um, quirks. You have to be careful about how you involve the quirky ones. Job interviews are a prime example. The interviewers represent the department. Our hiring committee is well aware of which of our emeriti should be invited to interview candidates, and which ones should not under any circumstances be placed upon any candidate's schedule. That one is not too hard to deal with.

    Our department has a useful way for keeping emeriti involved. There are two levels of emeriti status: emeritus, and then a higher level with a fancy name I forgot (professor in the graduate college, or something like that). To get the higher level, the emeritus professor has apply for it, and has to commit to a certain level of department service: typically, serving on a department committee or teaching a class (these are selected by the department chair, based upon need and where the emeritus can do the most good). Emeritus professors with the higher level can advise students and receive some perks (e.g., they get to keep their offices; emeritus professors without the higher-level status may be asked to move out of their office if the space is needed).

    Some useful ways to involve emeritus professors, depending upon the particular person: serve on the faculty awards committee, identifying faculty candidates for external awards and arranging for nominations; serve as department ombudsperson; serve on the awards committee; teach an advanced graduate seminar; teach a freshman seminar; organize the departmental colloquium, inviting speakers.

  • Kim says:

    How about giving the emeriti responsibilities that involve interacting with alums? Newsletters, fundraising? Especially at a SLAC, where a lot of the emeritus prof's work would have been with those former students? The department chair could enlist the help of the alumni office (or dean or provost), if the institution discourages direct departmental contact with alums. (The private SLAC where I used to teach had this policy. I thought it was silly, but it was the policy.)

    At my current institution, we've tapped into the expertise of our emeriti to help come up with ideas for senior thesis research when their replacements were on sabbatical. That was helpful, given that we've got a lot of students who need research projects, and can feel overwhelmed even we're all available to advise students.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy says:

    Some of my best graduate course work was taught by an emeritus professor indulging his passion--elaborate demos that required modification of the building infrastructure, and multi-class session laboratories that repeated ground-breaking work performed on lovingly maintained period equipment.

    I'm not in the part of my career where managing emeriti is my business, but their depth of experience and passion our the things that make them special.

    Oddly, I also had the experience of struggling with the demands, insults and idiosyncrasies of a full professor who was total out to lunch only to watch him turn into a sane and convivial fellow almost as soon as he retired.

  • Anon says:

    One of the emeriti in our department is responsible for grading all the first year graduate courses... given that he is sort of a bitter grumpy man, I am not sure I would recommend this position (for him or his ilk). There have been incidents where faculty have had to rip inappropriate and/or insulting comments off students' problem sets as they were being handed back...

    I think some of the other emeriti have been involved in slightly more constructive and innocuous work like developing a nice online system for tracking problems used on prior exams (both for qualifying exams and for undergraduate courses), writing up an FAQ for how to get latex to play nice with the department letterhead, etc.

  • Alex says:

    I teach at a place that doesn't like to keep emeriti around much (except one crackpot who gets to have lab space because an alum is funding his "research"), and I think we're worse for their absence. As an undergrad, a grad student, a postdoc, and even in my previous adjunct stint, the retired or nearly-retired faculty were always great resources for me. My current place tries to overload everybody until they leave, so there's less of an emeritus presence. Even the ones who are still energized and engaged with the field often just show up for seminars and then leave, and only get to have offices (and shared ones at that) when on the official teaching roster. Even worse, they are hired at the same status as any other part-timer, and the school has been known to assign untenured professors to do "peer evaluations" of their teaching. (A very, very unfair practice.)

    As young as I am, and as much as I like my job, I think about the emeritus professors I've known, I think about how much I admire them, and I think about my future, and I think that maybe I need to go to a place where I can enjoy my full career arc.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had an agreement to keep my lab for a year after I retired. I had a good bit of conversation with my replacement, who took notes, and is active and successful. Also, a couple of hires came in who were students of colleagues I know very well. I talked with them about work I did back in the early 1960's and convinced them to pick up on it. They have developed an active group, funded and doing all kinds of neat stuff. I go back about once a year to visit the department, and everyone seems glad to see me. I'm very pleased not to have to deal with some of the things which have changed for the worse since I retired.

  • msphd says:

    Interesting discussion! I laughed at the taxidermy suggestion.

    I have only had good interactions with emeriti. However, none of the places I have worked kept these people around for their scientific knowledge or allowed them to interact with trainees at all.

    Perhaps this is why I have the impression that, at least where I've worked, tenured faculty do not retire. Rather, they keep their labs until they drop dead (usually leaving at least one grad student completely in the lurch).

    Personally, I have been very glad to be able to contact retired professors via email about their publications from 30 or more years ago. In return, I have benefited from their rare and mature scientific expertise. I wish there were lunches with these emeriti, or something similar, where we could meet them in a safe (read: alcohol-free, supervised) environment. That way we could engage in scientific discourse without some of the risks FSP encountered with molesters.

    I strongly suspect that more departments would benefit from involving some of their wiser retirees in hiring decisions. This demographic seems to have a different perspective and more enthusiasm for the science, while it often seems like the younger folks are far too distracted by competition and politics, IMO.

  • One of our emeriti is a member of the NAS and an associate research scientist in someone else's lab. You see her walking down the hall with an ice bucket all the time.

  • lauren says:

    Wow. I've been in direct and indirect contact with about ten emeriti/ae and only encountered one who was helpful. He was actually extraordinarily kind and generous, but I concluded he was the exception that proved the rule. Most of the emeriti/ae I encountered just attended meetings, wandered about picking fights, or began seminars/research groups which they never saw through to the end (leaving others to pick up the mess). Maybe my experience was atypical, but I was left to conclude that emeriti/ae ought to be allowed access to campus/department resources only if they have a specific role to fulfill--and someone to whom they're accountable!

    My worst emeritus encounter was in grad school: I taught a Russian course for a couple of quarters and so was given some office space. However, the "office space" was a spare desk in the office of a Sociology emeritus who had evidently not been consulted about same. When I first walked in, smiled, and introduced myself, he literally shuddered with revulsion and moved his chair so he didn't have to look upon me. He spent most of the day in his office, surrounded by decades of detritus, and he took to throwing his garbage all over my work space. Needless to say, he never spoke to me. I gave up and held my office hours in the coffee shop, as it was clear he wasn't accountable to anyone, and it wasn't a hill I felt like dying on.

  • someone says:

    perhaps yous should have some guest posts by your husband 🙂

  • A. non Mouse says:

    Thanks for posting my query, (F)SP! and thanks for the feedback and the ideas...here's the update. I tried giving EP a project to work on (redoing a history display). He's been in my office every.day. since then, and wants feedback on his work (on an approximately 15 minutes after he e-mailed it to me timescale). Can you say backfire?? Mercifully he has travel plans this semester..