'Floating wraiths' thrive on growing old creatively

October 1, 2004

US academics no longer retire as a matter of course, writes Stephen Phillips, but those who do seldom quit campus for good

Besides the latest trend in humanities, that promising new branch of biotechnology research and the hottest cutting-edge computer-science topic, one of the busiest departments on the campus of the future could be for ex-members of staff.

Centres for retired faculty and other former staff are springing up at universities across the US.

Recent initiatives include Indiana University's Senior Scholars Academy, Yale University's Henry Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty and Emory University's Emeritus College. Arizona State University is mulling its own Emeritus College, while Columbia, Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Southern California and Arizona and Florida International universities are among those institutions hosting longer-standing facilities.

Officials from more than 40 campuses attended the Association for Retirement Organisations in Higher Education (AROHE) inaugural conference in 2002, and the inter-university group is expecting more than 100 delegates, including representatives from Canada, at this year's get-together in Nashville this month.

The growth in emeritus centres is at the heart of how US higher education is gearing up for the demographic time bomb about to detonate in its midst.

The West is ageing at an unprecedented rate and nowhere will the impact be felt more keenly than in the ranks of academe, overloaded as it is with greying baby-boomers hired during the 1960s expansion.

In 1987, age distribution across faculties was fairly uniform, according to the US National Center for Educational Statistics, with one-quarter of full-time teaching staff under 40; a quarter over 55; and half between 40 and 54. By 1998, just 18 per cent were younger than 40; while 31 per cent were older than 55.

Contemplating the wave of academics reaching their sixties and seventies over the next few years, Eugene Bianchi, AROHE president, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory and director of the Atlanta campus' Emeritus College, says: "The coming boomer generation is going to want to remain connected to the life they knew."

Organisations such as his go beyond familiar faculty associations offering occasional jollies, hitherto the extent of most universities' provision for retirees. They offer anything from social and recreational outlets to full-service teaching and research facilities, financial sponsorship of academic projects and advocacy on issues such as health insurance and pension plans. Some are based in insalubrious office suites in whatever department happens to have spare capacity, while others are in grand premises such as Yale's Koerner Center, housed in the oldest building in New Haven, Connecticut.

The centres strive to counter the feelings of marginalisation experienced by many emeriti suddenly cut off from full-time staff privileges and left with a feeling of being invisible like "wraiths floating around campus", Bianchi says.

Bianchi, unwilling to be put out to pasture when he retired in 2000, clubbed together with like-minded emeriti to petition Emory authorities for a grant for somewhere to allow retired staff a continued campus presence.

Indiana State's Senior Scholars Academy is the product of similar grassroots efforts by retired staff, while Yale's Koerner Center was set up with a $10 million (£5.5 million) gift from alumnus Joseph Koerner, a former Harvard art historian who felt that emeriti there appeared estranged from campus life.

The University of Southern California's Emeriti Center, one of the first, was founded in 1977 after a poll found almost half the Los Angeles campus'

retirees "felt both isolated and alienated from the university to which they had devoted their professional careers".

Emory's Emeritus College lays on a hectic social timetable, including film shows, discussion forums and lectures from members. It also gives away an annual distinguished emeritus award for post-retirement scholarship. This year's honoree was a spry 90-something.

A comparative spring chicken, Bianchi, 74, has published a history of the American Jesuit movement since retiring and is working on his memoirs, on top of part-time teaching.

"It's all about creative ageing," he says. "There's a new attitude to ageing. People want to stay involved. They have longer to live, maybe up to 25 years after retirement, and to make a contribution."

Emory's centre resists becoming a retirement ghetto, says Bianchi, encouraging members to mentor students and offering stipends for them to teach undergraduates classes.

Viewing retired staff as a resource for the wider university is integral to USC's Emeriti Center, which counts 300 active members. "We encourage deans and chairs to utilise members' expertise and wisdom," says executive director Elizabeth Redmon. "Many teach undergraduate and graduate seminars and classes and work within departments developing curricula and accreditation."

USC's centre also has a dedicated scholarship and research arm, Emeriti College, started in 1990, "to identify and advance the intellectual interests of retirees", Redmon says.

Members can apply for $2,000 grants to fund modest research projects.

Meanwhile, $2,500 studentships are offered for undergraduates to get a taste of research under the aegis of emeriti.

A vital aspect of the centre's work is promoting members' interests and rights to the university authorities, Redmon says. Pre-retirement education workshops are offered to staff approaching retirement, covering financial planning and benefit entitlements. Sessions also tackle lifestyle issues, such as time management and "substituting the values you got from your job", Redmon says.

To help staff find post-work fulfilment, community service grants are available to cover the cost of voluntary work such as teaching at local old people's homes, so retirees don't have to dig into their savings. Extending this community outreach, the centre sponsors up to 200 lectures a year to various groups in Los Angeles.

It's a sensitive subject, but another, often unspoken, function of emeritus centres is to entice ageing faculty to make way for new blood.

"Universities are like any other organisation, they want the right mix of people - young, middle-aged and old, bringing different skills," says Robert L. Clark, professor of economics and business management at North Carolina State University. "Faculty staying on can keep universities from refreshing themselves."

Like joining an exclusive club, USC retirees are welcomed into Emerti College with a formal banquet and issued with coveted "retiree gold cards", conferring free campus parking rights, bookshop and theatre discounts and library privileges.

"We don't encourage faculty members to retire, but the more you offer them options and desirable alternatives to full-time employment..." Redmon says.

"It's all about retiring at the right time for the faculty member and university."

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