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  Written by
  Geoffrey Stone



The Magazine invited Provost Geoffrey Stone, JD'71, to comment on James Shapiro's essay, and especially on issues relating to tenure and faculty retirement, from a U of C perspective.

tracking tenureAlthough the proliferation of part-time faculty is not a significant issue at the University of Chicago, and the placement of our graduate students continues to be one of our great strengths, the gradual “graying” of our faculty is a matter of concern, as it is at all major research universities.

The institution of tenure is fundamental to academic freedom. It facilitates robust intellectual debate and enables scholars freely to explore controversial issues and to undertake long-term, high-risk avenues of inquiry. It is an indispensable condition for the creation of new knowledge. As Mr. Shapiro notes, however, there is an important distinction between tenure as a means to preserve academic freedom and tenure as a means “to prolong a career.”

Because the institution of tenure rightly makes it difficult for a university to remove a faculty member, the policy of mandatory retirement at a fixed age played a central role in helping universities to maintain the essential balance between academic freedom and intergenerational vitality. When Congress eliminated mandatory retirement in universities in the 1980s and early 1990s, however, it significantly upset that balance.

Since then, universities have looked for ways to encourage faculty members to retire in order to make room for the next generation of teachers and scholars. To that end, in 1993 the University adopted a Faculty Retirement Incentive Program (FRIP), which provides financial and other incentives for faculty members to retire from active service between the ages of 65 and 70. In addition, the University has made a firm commitment to respect the needs of emeritus faculty members and to ensure that emeriti may—in appropriate ways—continue their teaching, research, and active participation in the intellectual life of the University.

This program, which has been a model for other universities, has served us well. Approximately 75% of U of C faculty members who have turned 70 since the FRIP was instituted have voluntarily retired between the ages of 65 and 70. By assuming emeritus status by the age of 70 in order to create opportunities for the next generation, these colleagues have fulfilled both their professional and institutional responsibilities. They have helped to ensure the future of their fields and of the University.

Let me cite just two examples—one departmental, one individual. Several years ago, one of our most distinguished departments faced a turning point. The cohort of faculty members who had built the department over the past thirty years were entering their 60s. To ensure the continued eminence of the department that they had spent their careers nurturing, and to ensure that their department would have the capacity to reconstitute itself in an orderly manner, these senior faculty members jointly pledged to retire within the terms of the FRIP. As a consequence, that department has brilliantly made the transition across generations from the best in its field to the best in its field.

At a more personal level, we need look no further than Hanna Gray. After 15 years as president of the University, Mrs. Gray returned to full-time teaching and research in the history department and the College, during which time she received the Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. This past year, Mrs. Gray, without any fanfare, officially retired in the quarter in which she turned 70. She will, of course, continue to teach on a regular basis as an emerita faculty member. This is the type of leadership the University needs and deserves from its senior faculty.

Despite such examples, the elimination of mandatory retirement has posed a challenge, even beyond the considerable costs of the FRIP. It has inevitably forced a difficult trade-off between senior and junior faculty. In 1992, the University’s Task Force on Faculty Retirement spelled out the issue: While “many of our most senior colleagues are as intellectually active as our youngest colleagues” and continue to make important contributions, the University cannot afford to “reduce the numbers of new colleagues” we appoint “because they keep us intellectually vital.”

Although we have done well relative to other universities in coming to terms with the end of mandatory retirement, the change in federal policy has caused an appreciable reduction in the resources available to appoint new assistant professors. Indeed, it is reasonable to suppose that the University today has some 30 fewer assistant professors than it would have had if mandatory retirement had not been eliminated.

Over the past 25 years, the percentage of our faculty who are 35 or younger has declined from 29 percent to 17 percent and the median age of the faculty has increased from 43 to 46. Similar trends are evident in the percentage of faculty with tenure (gradually increasing) and the percentage of faculty at the rank of assistant professor (gradually decreasing).

As Provost Robert McCormick Adams, PhB’47, AM’52, PhD’56, observed in 1984, this development, which affects all major research universities, is “damaging, not only to the vigorous, state-of-the-art research and instructional programs that are immediately affected, but also, more generally, to the intergenerational continuity toward which any great educational institution must work.” The task, as always, is to strike the right balance.


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