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?