Spirited exhortation

Christmas can come early if universities tap the wisdom of the emeriti, argues Angela Thody (with help from Charles Dickens)

August 23, 2012

Credit: Ian Summers

Emeritus professor Marley was effectively dead. He had retired seven years ago. Although his name had never been removed from its website, his university saw him no more.

One evening, soon-to-retire Scrooge sat huddled over a PC. Its melancholy data revealed her offspring's education costs, the size of her mortgage, the imminent waste of her expertise. She sighed. Suddenly, out of the gloom, her ex-colleague Marley's avatar flickered on to the screen.

"I have walked", said Marley, "with my eyes turned down. I earned honourable discharge as an emeritus but I ignored the beneficial possibilities. But you have yet a chance. Three spirits will I send to give you a chance of escaping my lonely, useless fate." The image of emeritus Marley faded away.

The first of the spirits duly appeared: the unearthly Ghost of Universities Past. He commanded Scrooge to walk with him. Amid the shadow of things that once were, Scrooge saw scholars deep in exciting teaching and research. Among them, a solitary young woman laboured.

"Good heavens! I was that young lecturer," cried Scrooge. "My post was funded by the partial retirement of Professor Fezziwig. You wouldn't believe how that old man went at it for his two-day week. Teams of researchers, supervising doctorates, mentoring young staff ... Oh. Spirit, I should like to give something of this past to what is now."

The spectre's light brightened.

"Active emeriti are symbols of university survival," the spirit said. "You have romped with Robbins, deconstructed Dearing with Derrida, flown with Foucault through the era of massification, research assessment and quality audits. Research shows that the old and the young are our eccentrics. But only emeriti now have the tenure to speak the unspeakable, to allot time to just thinking, to question without vested interest in the freedom of your maturity."

"I will try, spirit," Scrooge promised. "But how?"

Scrooge found herself transported to another room; it was cheerfully comfortable and filled with the hum of activity from emeriti who were globally connected, having been allowed to retain their university's email services. Phone calls proceeded to librarians as they researched forthcoming work. Jolly old gentlemen and ladies sat jointly writing chapters for a book on the institution's history.

The Ghost of Universities Present held up a glowing torch, illuminating yet more corners of activity. A young research assistant called by to invite the emeriti to the students' ice cream social. She brought with her the latest data from the laboratory, where the emeriti had space.

As the scent of tea and coffee wafted across the emeriti centre, an LED screen displayed an invitation to the next emeriti inauguration. There, the university's public orator would proclaim the contributions of emeriti to the university, present commemorative scrolls ... and keys to the university car park.

"Spirit, tell me if emeriti will live like this?" asked Scrooge.

"This is how some live in North America now. If the UK picture alters in the future, there could be emeriti colleges, like the Henry Koerner Center at Yale, with research funds, offices and sherry. About 60 per cent of US emeriti continue publishing post-retirement and about 40 per cent are teaching part-time; Lorraine Dorfman, the doyenne of US emeriti research, has just retired at 75 but intends to teach one module per semester. Some are still active in their eighties," intoned the spirit.

"As in the UK!" Scrooge expostulated. "Retired academics are more likely than any other occupational group to continue with professional activities paid and unpaid; Thody found that 50 per cent of a UK research-led university's emeriti professors remained active."

"But sometimes with too little encouragement," gently reproved the spirit. "See at this US university picnic, an emeritus receives an award for distinguished service. At this conference, lo there is an emeritus with a research grant from his university and funded travel."

"And Spirit, who is that?" asked Scrooge, noting two young people arriving.

"These are new lecturers in Want and Ignorance of university traditions, seeking teaching and research development."

"So I could help them with their unformed ideas," mused Scrooge.

The ghost smiled and was gone.

One more phantom beckoned silently. Shrouded in a black academic robe, the Ghost of Universities Yet to Come pointed to a bleak landscape denuded of emeriti. Scrooge saw her neglected, lonely grave and shuddered.

"Spirit, tell me that the wisdom of the aged will not be lost! Assure me that emeriti could still help supervise PhD students, chair vivas, share their radical views, serve on adjudication panels, promote lifelong learning and submit publications for the next REF?"

The spectre's hand pointed at Scrooge as if to show where the answers lay.

The spirits had done their work. Scrooge exulted. "I will live in the past, present and future!" she cried. "I will demonstrate aged-saged eccentricity, win the hearts of benefactors for university scholarships, found a national thinktank of emeriti, work part-time so young people can start in this wonderful job ... Oh, I am as happy as an angel."

Emeritus Scrooge was better than her word. She did it all and more. She mentored new staff and persuaded management to convert emeritus status to a guaranteed, remunerated part-time post at 65.

Some people laughed to see the alteration in her, but she let them laugh; for she was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.

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