As old crew quit, it's not all smooth sailing

September 14, 2007

To fill gaps left by retiring faculty, US institutions are taking on greater numbers of foreign lecturers and cheaper part-time and contract staff, but they are still having difficulty filling places in some disciplines. Jon Marcus reports

With the imminent retirements of baby-boomer academics opening up a raft of positions at US universities, institutions are moving to address the problem with a variety of measures, including hiring international scholars.

Many institutions, however, are taking advantage of the vacancies to switch from costly tenured faculty to cheaper part-time or contingent replacements. Students are resisting the appointment of international faculty with less than fluent English-language skills. And many ageing faculty are stubbornly putting off retirement.

These departures seem inevitable nonetheless. Many faculty who began their careers during the expansion of US higher education in the 1960s and 1970s are now in their sixties, seventies and eighties. A third of American faculty are 55 or older, compared to less than a quarter in 1989, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The next few years will see an "increase in the likelihood of faculty from other countries having the opportunity to teach here, at least on an interim basis," said Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Personnel Association.

"As our population ages, some of the gaps we'll see over the next five or ten years, particularly in the sciences, mean that strong international faculty will be in much greater demand," he added.

There are already severe faculty shortages in some disciplines, as student enrolment grows. Class sizes in many engineering schools are high because of chronic faculty vacancies. Business schools report severe shortages of faculty with doctorates to teach the growing number of students in masters in business administration programmes. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accrediting agency, says there are two to three times more positions available than people to fill them. The number of doctoral degrees awarded in business will be short of the demand for business faculty by 1,142 next year and 2,419 by 2013.

There is also a critical shortage of faculty at pharmacy schools, exacerbating a nationwide scarcity of trained pharmacists. A survey of all 84 schools of pharmacy in the US by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy found that there were more than 400 vacant teaching posts. Nearly half had gone unfilled for periods ranging from six months to two years. A fifth of the vacancies were created by retirements, and nearly 40 per cent of the remaining faculty members were 50 and older.

Shortages of nursing faculty have limited the capacity of nursing schools at a time when the demand for nurses is skyrocketing. Nursing schools turned away 42,866 qualified applicants to baccalaureate and graduate nursing programmes last year because they did not have enough faculty, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing says. Most of the unfilled positions require a doctoral degree, but the average age of nursing professors with doctorates who are still working is about 54.

Universities have resorted to various measures to address these shortages. A few business schools have raised student fees to pay faculty salaries as high as $180,000 (£89,000) a year. Many nursing and pharmacy schools offer scholarships and other incentives to students to encourage them to follow careers in university teaching. Other universities are making the tenure process easier for women with children. Women are underrepresented among tenured faculty in the US.

"Many universities have implemented procedures whereby women and parents can in effect stop the tenure clock for a period of time to enable them to have family time, to have children and to have the rest of their lives in addition to being on that tenure track," Mr Brantley said. "This is what we have to do to recruit, attract and retain new faculty" of either sex, he added.

The demographic upheaval also creates another problem: recruiting more new doctoral degree holders into the ranks means there are greater numbers of young, less experienced faculty working alongside older faculty near retirement, but few in the middle who are poised to take over the direction of departments.

"The professorial group is ageing, and we don't have that middle level at many universities," Mr Brantley said. "We could see some major problems at some smaller universities, and even at larger universities that have kept hiring to a minimum for a while."

Nor are all those older faculty moving out of the way. Mandatory retirement for tenured faculty was eliminated at most US universities in 1994, and many faculty have stayed. By 1996, 14 per cent of all academics at US universities were between 60 and 69.

Elite universities tend to have the greyest faculties. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, per cent of those in mathematics and 6.4 per cent overall are aged over 70. At Harvard University, more than 9 per cent of faculty are over 70, while at Columbia University the figure is nearly 10 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of those aged under 45 years has fallen from 41 per cent to 34 per cent since 1989. Older faculty also tend to be the loudest in opposing any easing of requirements for tenure.

"We've been talking about this looming group of retirees for some time now, and it hasn't happened as fast as we expected," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors. "It's not the one-time bulge or one-time explosion in openings that we were expecting. It's much more of a transition that seems to be happening over a period of years."

Besides the elimination of mandatory retirement, Mr Curtis said, some older faculty deferred retiring because they could not afford it. Others were being encouraged by their universities to stay to help allay faculty shortages and maintain continuity.

But universities seem eager to replace retiring faculty with part-time, or "adjunct", faculty - who are considerably cheaper and less bothersome. Nearly half of all current faculty are part-time, and 68 per cent are non-tenure track, according to the AAUP.

"One of the real concerns is that the number of tenured faculty as a proportion of all faculty is actually declining, and the proportion of those on the tenure track is also declining," Mr Curtis said.

"We have been shifting toward a more contingent workforce. It definitely is cheaper, and they always use the flexibility word. But enrolments have continued to increase, and many of the part-time faculty are teaching basic survey courses where there's very strong and consistent demand," he said.

Universities recruiting international scholars have done so with mixed success. For one thing, there is growing antipathy towards overseas staff whose English-language skills are poor. In North Dakota, a legislator unsuccessfully proposed a Bill promising a refund to state university students if they could not understand instructors' English.

Undergraduates at Pennsylvania State University protested so loudly about the inadequacies of lecturers' English that the university set up a committee to study the "English-language deficiencies" of teaching assistants. The result was an increase in the required score on the American English Oral Communicative Proficiency Test for foreign teaching assistants. Columbia offers a training course to improve international academics' English.

But the biggest problem is in getting international scholars to stay.

"In many ways, the academic world is already a global system," Mr Curtis said. "The natural sciences, and fields such as engineering and mathematics, have been very international for quite some time... [and] foreign nationals are an increasing share of the PhD graduates. But it's becoming more common for them to return to their home countries."

He said there had been concern that this shift might be because of increased security requirements since the September 11 terrorist attacks, but it turned out there were more opportunities in "India, Australia and places like that".


The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act banned most US employers from setting a mandatory retirement age.

Universities were given an exemption in 1986 allowing them to force professors to retire, but the exemption was not renewed and it expired in 1996. This means that university faculty do not have to retire at any specific age.

In 1996, some 14 per cent of all faculty were between the ages of 60 and 69. Today, a third of American faculty are 55 or older, compared with less than a quarter in 1989, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Huge numbers of lecturers are finally expected to retire in the next ten years in what some in higher education call the "big crew change".

This has already caused shortages in several disciplines, including business, engineering, pharmacology, and nursing - all of which have also seen increases in enrolment.

Nursing schools turned away 42,866 qualified applicants to baccalaureate and graduate nursing programmes last year because they did not have enough faculty, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

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