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Still Hanging Around: Profs Put Off Retiring Aging Faculty Presents New Challenge for MIT

By Curt Fischer


Mildred S. Dresselhaus’ office is overflowing with stacks of research articles and reports, and with an impending flight to Sweden, she has little time to talk.

The Institute professor may be 75, but she isn’t slowing down — she currently advises seven of her own PhD students, and her recent publication record attests to her ongoing contributions to carbon-based nanotechnology.

Hartley Rogers Jr’s office is neatly organized, and he is examining a copy of The Tech late one afternoon. In contrast to Dresselhaus’ research bent, Rogers has intensely focused the latter part of his professorial career on graduate and undergraduate teaching — the PhD theses of his former graduate students are high on an out-of-the way shelf, with the last written in 1971. But since that time he has completely re-worked the curriculum for 18.022 (Calculus II), written a textbook, and developed summer programs for high school students.

The divergent paths these two faculty members have chosen for the senior phase of their careers illustrates the varied roles older faculty take at MIT.

These differences are becoming increasingly important — professors at MIT are getting older, and new hires aren’t coming along fast enough to make up for the difference. The mean age of a full professor is now over 56 (see graphic).

What do the differential contributions of the older faculty mean for MIT? As a result of tenure, they can remain as full-time faculty even after their research and teaching output begins to wane. But department heads say this is the exception rather than the rule.

W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department (Course 6), said that “there are always specific examples of people who have kind of wound down,” but added that most older professors remain excellent teachers and administrators. “They all still teach,” he said of the faculty over age 70 in his department.

The professional respect that older faculty can command also aids their administrative efforts. “We have a convening power — when we call somebody, they call back,” said Dresselhaus.

Michael Sipser, head of the mathematics department — whose faculty will be 27 percent over-70 by year’s end , the highest at MIT — had similar perspectives on math’s older faculty. “Many of them, if not most of them, are not heavily engaged in research,” he said, but many of the older faculty are still “very engaged in the teaching side.” He specifically mentioned the contributions of math professors Michael Artin, Arthur P. Mattuck, and Hartley Rogers.

Rogers characterized his late-career focus on teaching as “doing what you should’ve, would’ve, could’ve done” earlier.

President emeritus Paul E. Gray ’54, former chairman of the MIT Corporation, is now a half-time professor in Course 6. “Teaching is the best job at MIT — a return to an activity which has challenged and satisfied me.”

Of course, some older faculty members, like Institute Professors Dresselhaus and Isadore Singer, do fundamental research well into their golden years. But Dresselhaus herself is well aware of the need for faculty renewal. She serves on visiting committees for a number of colleges across the country, and says she is always pressuring college administrators to get faculty retired. But she personally isn’t looking to call it quits anytime soon. “Retirement is difficult because I still want to work,” she said.

Gray also noted the need for faculty renewal, saying that the large contingent of faculty staying active past traditional retirement ages “slows the rate at which new faculty can enter the field.” Dresselhaus noted another simple reason to foster faculty turnover: older faculty are paid more.

How can the Institute foster faculty renewal without compromising the rights of tenured faculty to retire at their own discretion?

One possibility is that it can’t. “At the root, there is a conflict between tenure and no mandatory retirement age for faculty,” said Gray.

The way that MIT, and universities nationally, will resolve this dilemma is uncertain, said Gray, but one possibility he foresees is the idea of “rolling tenure.” Under this system, traditional, permanent tenure would last only until a certain age, after which tenure extensions would be granted in two or five-year blocks, at the discretion of senior administrators.

Grimson is open-minded about the possibility of rolling tenure, but is more cautious. He strongly defended tenure, saying that “tenure is a very important element of intellectual freedom,” and that “mandatory rules driving intellectual decisions can be dangerous.”

Any solution to the problem will need to be tailored to individual departments, if not individual faculty. Even within MIT, the fraction of the faculty over age 65 varies widely from department to department (see graphic).

Why are professors getting older? The data suggest two reasons. One is MIT’s rapid expansion in the 1960s and 1970s — the size of the faculty grew from about 620 in 1960 to about 950 (near its present size of 983) in 1970. This large block of “baby boomer” hires largely comprised young assistant professors, many of whom are now reaching the final phases of their careers.

A second reason is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1967, forbade most employers from setting a mandatory retirement age — but in 1986, universities were granted a special exemption that let them mandate that professors retire after age 70. In 1993, this exemption expired, and since then universities have been unable to force retirement of their tenured faculty.

But MIT may not be feeling the crunch just yet. Institute-wide, 6.4 percent of full professors are over age 70. Even in the math faculty — the oldest at MIT — department head Sipser said that size limitations have not been a primary factor in the hiring of new faculty, although he could anticipate them becoming more important for hiring within the next few years.

One reason that the math department in particular may be saved from a demographics crisis is the older faculties’ willingness to accept renewal. “A number of faculty who are important contributors told me that if I felt the department needed their position, they would relinquish it,” Sipser said.

It is uncertain how far this magnanimity extends outside the math department, but another factor that has mitigated the aging of MIT’s faculty was an institute budgetary crisis in 1996.

To save on long-term costs, the administration offered all employees 55 or older, including faculty, incentives packages to retire early. By 1997, 79 faculty members, or about 8 percent of all of MIT’s professors, had taken the incentives.

The bottom line was that MIT’s ability to hire a number of younger professors led to the rejuvenation of several smaller departments, including Course 16. “It had a wonderfully salubrious effect,” Gray said.

In the long term, though, MIT may need explicit policies to foster faculty renewal — faculty can feel confused about when may be best for them to retire. Rogers said that he personally doesn’t “feel like I am standing in anybody’s way.”

But Dresselhaus said that “nobody tells us what to do — they ought to tell us what they need us for.” “The boss should tell you when it’s time,” she said.