Strategies to Help Faculty into a Graceful Retirement

spoke of being
the first woman in their
department, or the first woman
chair or dean. ‘If no one is there to
take down their story, they may
not be ready to retire because if
they go, their story goes
with them.’

Dr. Susan KressDr. Susan Kress

There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over—and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out. —Writer/columnist Ellen Goodman

Post-retirement futures tend to play out differently for faculty women, who generally live longer than their male counterparts. Women are more likely to survive years past retirement, be suddenly bereft of a life partner or to live alone into old age because they stayed single.

Making the transition to retirement has grown more complicated. In 2012 the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced grants to 15 schools that model best practices in supporting faculty transitions to retirement. Panelists from two of the winners, San Jose State University CA (Dr. Amy Strage and Dr. Joan Merdinger) and Skidmore College NY (Dr. Susan Kress), joined ACE’s Jean McLaughlin in a panel at the CUWFA annual conference in Toronto in June.

ACE/Sloan retirement transitions grants encourage programs that help senior faculty transition into retirement, develop a legacy and maintain ongoing academic connections after retiring.

“How do we make retirement easier and smoother?” asked Dr. Amy Strage, professor of child and adolescent development and interim director of the Center for Faculty Development at San Jose State University, who served as ACE/Sloan faculty-in-residence for faculty career flexibility.

Retirement has changed since the days when professors got a gold watch and a handshake at 65, whether or not they wanted it. Since 1994 it has been illegal to force tenured faculty to retire, but colleges haven’t yet adjusted to the implications. Like recruitment and retention, retirement needs to be treated as a strategic issue.

Professors are staying longer, with pros and cons for higher education. Schools can preserve a strong institutional memory. Their star professors can continue to win research grants and mentor younger faculty. And colleges can retain their great teachers. “You get better as a teacher as you age,” said Jean McLaughlin, associate director of the Institutional Leadership Group at ACE.

Cons include that having an aging faculty makes it harder for schools to increase diversity and adapt to changes in student interests. It is also a budget challenge, since senior professors typically have higher salaries than newcomers.

Delaying retirement is a mixed bag for faculty, too. Some may crave free time or feel guilty for contributing to the bottleneck that leaves new PhDs waiting tables or driving cabs. But some feel safer financially if they stay, especially in these times of economic uncertainty and longer lifespans. They may value the opportunity to keep on contributing. And many simply love their jobs.

Colleges can create win/win solutions that make retirement a positive option instead of something to dread. That’s where the best practices modeled at the ACE/Sloan award-winning schools come in.

Phasing into retirement

Founded as a teachers’ college in 1857, San Jose State University is the oldest in the Cal State system. More than half of its tenured and tenure-track faculty are eligible to retire—being over 50 and having at least five years of service— according to Dr. Joan Merdinger, who recently retired as associate VP for faculty affairs, professor of social work and campus coordinator for the ACE/ Sloan transitions to retirement award.

Under a previous ACE/Sloan faculty career flexibility award, SJSU developed an online tool to help faculty sort through two common retirement concerns: having enough money and wanting to taper down without quitting altogether. Part-time options exist, but figuring out their financial effects can feel overwhelming.

Two alternatives under the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) allow professors to phase into retirement, both limited to five years.

Pre-Retirement Reduction in Time Base (PRTB). Tenured faculty aged 55-65 with at least 10 years of service can request a reduction in workload to 2/3, 1/2 or 1/3 time. They continue paying into CalPERS at full-time rates and earning full service credit toward retirement.

Faculty Early Retirement Program (FERP). Tenured faculty age 55 or over can retire with full benefits and then teach half-time or less at their pre-retirement salary.

Choosing between these system-wide options is complicated, and not all are ready to ask for help. “Some are happy to share their intentions; others are much more private. Our challenge is to serve both types,” Merdinger said.

With the online calculator developed by SJSU, users enter their data in privacy to get a customized projection. It is available to anyone in the state system.

Over the last three years 75% of new SJSU retirees have taken advantage of one plan or the other. Survey responses show faculty like the phased-retirement programs and wish they’d known more about them earlier for planning.

Road shows and podcasts

Its new ACE/Sloan award allows SJSU to create new ways to help faculty at all career stages look to retirement.

Recorded interviews. “Most people in higher education have spent 30 to 40 years wrapping their identity around that role,” Strage told WIHE. Stepping down can be jarring.

They’re recording 10-minute interviews with a number of retired professors about their retirement experience and what they wish they had known. Interviewees share very personal aspects of their journey; no two stories are the same. After they are transcribed and captioned, the pod-casts will go up on a web site for current faculty.

Road shows. They’re hoping to have members of their Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association (ERFA) reach out to current faculty. Some ERFA members might attend the start of a faculty meeting or share ideas at a separate event.

Peer-to-peer financial literacy. Understanding finance is not a strong suit of many scholars outside of the business school. They’re making five podcast-type 10-minute modules taught by business school faculty.

Some explain basic concepts like the time value of money. How does compounding interest affect your savings if you take five years out to raise a child? What do all those numbers mean on your pay stub or your annual CalPERS statement? “We’re managing to bring some valuable information in a timely way,” she said.

Staying connected

One great fear about retirement is the risk of losing ties with colleagues, school and academic field. Skidmore College NY, a private liberal arts college, offers formal and informal ways for retirees to stay connected.

“Faculty need institutional support to transition to retirement with public appreciation for their legacy at the institution. After retirement, they should have opportunities to stay connected,” Dr. Susan Kress told WIHE. She recently retired as Skidmore’s VP for academic affairs, professor of English, co-director of the Women and Gender Studies program and leader of the team that prepared their successful award application.

To support faculty approaching or considering retirement, they offer workshops and one-on-one counseling to guide informed decisions based on projected needs and resources. Annual seminars educate retired and active faculty on financial issues. But that is only the beginning.

Their retiree association grew out of a project by the late Dr. Phyllis Roth before she retired as dean of the faculty in 2010. She approached the college about trying to improve communication and facilitate “encore” careers for retirees. The college agreed; fearing a loss of continuity and institutional memory if many professors retired at once, they saw a need to stay connected with retired senior scholars.

Roth’s project grew into an informally organized retiree association, uncommon at liberal arts colleges. Volunteer committees of retirees manage it with liaisons from academic affairs and HR. Among other activities, it sponsors faculty research grants through Skidmore’s faculty development committee.

“This supported faculty in their scholarly activities, a key characteristic of faculty identity, while keeping them connected to the institution,” Kress told WIHE.

Retired professors there get emeritus status automatically. They have access to the library, computers and the fitness center. They can take classes without cost. They are listed in the annual college directory.

Skidmore sponsors social gatherings for retirees including lunches and receptions. New retirees are invited to an annual event at the home of the academic VP and a meeting with the president.

These close connections between the college and its retired faculty help the school and community. A retired professor may be invited informally to teach classes or chair a department. Some mentor younger faculty, pursue a legacy or capstone project, foster ties with alumnae or work on academic projects with students.

Honoring the legacy

McLaughlin explained ACE’s interest in faculty flexibility concerning issues around retirement.

In campus visits she heard stories of breaking down barriers earlier in their career, from older women and minorities. They spoke of being the first woman faculty in their department, or the first woman chair or dean. “If no one is there to take down their story, they may not be ready to retire because if they go, their stories go with them,” she told WIHE.

The University of Southern California, another ACE/Sloan retirement award recipient, is capturing some legacies in the living history project at the USC Emeriti Center. They have videotaped dozens of retired faculty and staff recalling major campus events from the 1940s to the present.

Legacies also take the form of capstone projects, major scholarly or academic projects the professor wants to complete. ACE/Sloan award winner Mount Holyoke College MA offers one-time grants for faculty nearing retirement to complete a project. Another award winner, the University of Baltimore MD, offers emeriti faculty clerical help, private office space and funds for travel to conferences.

Some faculty prefer to transition to volunteer service. Among the schools with ACE/Sloan retirement awards, George Mason University VA partners with community organizations and the county to match retirees’ interests and skills with volunteer opportunities. Wellesley College MA’s emeriti-faculty steering committee is developing town-gown programs where retired professors share their expertise. And USC’s Emeriti Center promotes volunteer as well as part-time work on campus.

Some legacies are financial. McLaughlin said women are more interested in funding projects related to women: women’s issues or the women’s college they attended.

Ultimately legacy can be a spiritual issue. Drawing on its Jesuit heritage, Xavier University OH offers opportunities for reflection and discussion in a workshop series on topics such as aging and spirituality.


Dr. Amy Strage,  
Dr. Joan Merdinger,  
Jean McLaughlin,  
Dr. Susan Kress, 

 Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, September). Strategies to Help Faculty into a Graceful Retirement. Women in Higher Education, 22(9), 16-17.

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