I'll Retire if My University Pledges to Replace MeRoundup
tags: academic labor, faculty labor, adjunct instruction
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with the cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, and Why You Should Give a Damn, which was published in April by City of Light Press.
“So, when are you going to retire?”
I’ll be honest: That’s not a question I ever imagined receiving. But I’m turning 60 this month. And in connection with that inauspicious milestone, at least three people have recently asked me when I’ll hang up my cleats — or, more precisely, my tweeds — and ride into the academic sunset.
The answer might surprise you: When I know I’ll be replaced.
And not with a couple of adjuncts who would teach my courses for a few thousand bucks apiece. No, I’ll retire when my institution pledges to hire a full-time, tenure-track professor in my place.
I’m not in any kind of rush, mind you. I’m a youthful 60, or so I like to think. (Don’t we all?) I still love teaching and writing, and I’ve continued to be productive in both realms. But I’d happily promise to retire by age 70 — that is, within the next decade — if my institution commits to hiring a full-timer in my stead. And if all of us “senior” (cough) professors did the same, we might reverse the greatest moral blot on academe right now: adjunctification.
We’ve all seen the statistics: A hefty majority of college teachers work in contingent, nontenure-track positions, either full or part time. Some of those faculty members have full-time careers outside higher education and teach as a sideline, while others live at or near the poverty level, trying to make a career out of adjunct teaching. Either way, they do not enjoy that key privilege of tenure: academic freedom. (How long the tenure-track and tenured folks will continue to enjoy it remains to be seen.)
Meanwhile, those of us in the tenure system get grayer and grayer. According to a 2020 report on the “aging of tenure-track faculty,” 37 percent of those professors are 55 or older, as opposed to 23 percent of all American workers. And 13 percent of tenure-track faculty members are 65 or older, whereas just 6 percent of U.S. workers have reached that ripe age. Nearly three-quarters of over-65 faculty members are men, by the way, and roughly 80 percent of them are white.
A little history: In 1978, Congress outlawed mandatory retirement for American workers under 70. But as life expectancy rose — and with it, concerns about age discrimination — critics asked why we should have any age-related mandates at all. In 1986, Congress outlawed compulsory retirement in most sectors but exempted higher education. Colleges and universities were allowed to keep forcing professors to retire at age 70, while the National Academy of Sciences studied what would happen if they were allowed to keep working.
Its 1991 report was cheery … and wrong. At “most colleges and universities,” the report predicted, “few tenured faculty would continue working past age 70 if mandatory retirement is eliminated.” That made sense at the time, given the patterns the National Academy had observed among institutions that had done away with compulsory retirement. So in 1993 Congress ended the exemption, effective in 1994.
Now you could teach forever, if you wanted to. And more and more academics did — or at least announced that they would.
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