Retiring from academic life

US public institutions of higher education remain inept at preparing staff for life after work, says Lee Maril

August 21, 2014

At my first job interview in 1973, I was asked to sit in a comfortable wooden rocking chair while department members surrounded me on three sides to bombard me with questions. I was dressed in a brand new green, yellow and brown plaid suit, and the only question I remember more than 40 years later is this: “What do you think of our retirement plan?”

As I looked around the room, I realised that I was the only person wearing a plaid suit, the only person with long hair and a beard and apparently the only person who believed that a discussion of the university’s retirement plan was not germane to my interests. When a colleague in my first department announced their impending retirement soon after I arrived on campus, I was shocked.

University retirement plans are often the only topics many of my colleagues discuss before they disappear from the hallways, classrooms and the library. As a sociology department chair at two different universities, I witnessed a number of colleagues retire. In general, I would describe their emotional state as this: they were very angry.

They were angry with their students because students no longer seemed to care about anything but grades; angry with the dean who was the same age as their youngest child; angry with most recent trends in higher education; and angry that they could not afford a second home in the mountains.

Ultimately, they were also angry with themselves. They had not achieved, for whatever reasons, all the goals and objectives that originally attracted them to sociology: they had not published the groundbreaking articles and books that they ought to have published; or they had not been recognised for their professional achievements.

I observed only a handful of retirees who adjusted to their retirements in what seemed to be healthy and productive ways. Too many drifted off into relatively isolated lives while succumbing to family conflicts, health issues, boredom and further disillusionment with their careers. Only one actually found a publisher for the book he had always intended to write, while most quickly lost touch with their colleagues and the discipline.

I don’t think that my departmental colleagues were exceptional. I do think that our public institutions of higher education remain inept at preparing faculty for retirement. A token gift, perhaps a thank you by the dean in front of the department, along with the cumbersome exit interview by human resources, is not nearly enough. Neither is the perfunctory vote of emeritus status, nor the noxious custom in my current department of “roasts”, a tradition involving (supposedly) humorous put-downs of the retiree that in one night easily trivialises a professional career.

The plaid suit has long since disappeared from my closet, but as my aged cohort continues to retire, I am encouraged by the first attempts of my own academic society, the American Sociological Association, to begin to address some retirement issues. There are, I would assert, also better and more productive ways for departments and public universities to develop and sustain meaningful and thoughtful preparation and support for retiring and retired faculty. As one steps aside after a career in academia, economic security is certainly a necessity. But it is not nearly enough.

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