The University of Pittsburgh has become the latest research university in the United States to offer a retirement plan intended to ease out its oldest faculty staff.
From January 1, for just three months, professors whose age and experience totals 85 years can qualify for a generous bonus if they agree to leave.
Four years ago, the US congress put an end to mandatory retirement rules at universities and colleges in the name of barring age discrimination. The average age of retirement at institutions has stayed about the same as before, but the question of when and how tenured professors retire is a potent issue.
This autumn, Pittsburgh joined the University of Chicago, Cornell and other leading institutions in drafting early retirement schemes. They are lobbying congress to change the law so that retirement packages that pay better to those who retire younger can avoid age discrimination challenges.
Of the 1,400 faculty staff at Pittsburgh, which receives $250 million in government research grants, more than 20 per cent of professors are aged 60 or over. More than 30 are older than 70. "These demographics mean we are not getting new blood in," said Arthur Ramicone, associate chancellor for budget and administration. "We want to hire new faculty into new disciplines. You can't retool faculty in the humanities for bioengineering."
At public teaching universities, which account for most university jobs, it appears there is plenty of incentive to depart. According to figures from the American Association of University Professors, only 0.1 per cent of US faculty staff are now 71 or older, and just 3.7 per cent are in the 65 to 70-year-old bracket. However, surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that a small core of academics, especially at research universities where the teaching load is light, are likely to stay on into their 70s and, in rare cases, beyond.
The average age of faculty staff has crept up to about 49, said Jack Schuster, a professor at Claremont Graduate University. "Close to half the faculty are 50 or older," he said. "It's not a youthful lot out there."
Virginia professor Jay Chronister, who has prepared a report on the subject for the National Centre for Education Statistics, confirms that a small number of professors will likely resist incentives to leave.
The question of age and ability is a sensitive one. Mr Schuster and others are careful to stress that older faculty members are often vital and highly productive. But now, even those faculty who are past their prime have more power to negotiate their departure terms.
According to Professor Schuster, the recent stock market slide is another factor that could put some off early retirement if it affects pension funds. Three-quarters of US colleges and universities offer employees "defined contribution" plans under which they pay a portion of salaries into an account invested with a pension fund.
The stock market's huge rise in the past three years has made retirement a happy financial prospect for many. But if the market continues to slide as it has recently, it could lead university staff to postpone retirement.
In another attempt to ensure that faculty staff do not stay on too long, a growing number of universities are adopting tenure review procedures that could conceivably be used to pressure professors to leave. In the US, all faculty staff who reach retirement age are tenured professors.