One-Quarter of Eligible Professors Accept Retirement Program

Annual report on faculty diversity reveals results

of the 176 senior faculty members in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and four professional schools who were offered a retirement program last December, 46—or 26 percent—have enrolled. That information, and data in another recent report to the FAS, provide important insights into the faculties’ changing composition across the University.

FAS had the greatest stake in the retirement program: 127 of its approximately 720 faculty members met the criteria (age 65 by September 1, 2010, and with at least 10 years of Harvard service) and were offered the incentives. The program allowed faculty members to choose to retire after one year of paid sabbatical; two years of half-time teaching and service at full-time pay; or four years of half-time teaching and service at full pay for one year, plus half-time pay for three years but with full-time pension contributions. Thirty-two FAS professors accepted the offers—25 percent of those eligible. The schools of divinity, education, medicine, and public health extended offers to a total of 49 faculty members, of whom 14 decided to participate—29 percent. The faculty members’ elections had to be made by last June 30; the results of their decisions are being released today as part of the 2010 annual report of the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity.

The University’s early-retirement incentive, extended to 1,628 staff members, was accepted by 534 employees—33 percent—in the spring of 2009. (Staff members’ circumstances of course differ significantly from the situation faced by professors: the former are not tenured, and the staff incentive program was followed by layoffs.) 

In a conversation, senior vice provost Judith D. Singer characterized the response to the program as “pretty high,” indicating that the terms were “clearly attractive” to the eligible professors. The program, she noted, was experimental in nature: since the legal abolition of mandatory retirement for professors in 1994, Harvard Business School has been alone among the faculties in offering a regular retirement program for its faculty members. Given the response to this pilot offering, she indicated, FAS and the divinity and public-health schools expect to unveil continuing retirement programs for their professors, beginning next month. (In a separate e-mail to the faculty, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith wrote, "I have decided to implement an ongoing program, which will draw on those options from the 2009-2010 program that were most attractive to the faculty. Details of the new program will be available when it launches in early December." He also observed that alongside the recent program, other faculty members had previously made retirement options, bringing to 41 the number of tenured FAS professors whose retirements are scheduled during the next five years.)


Singer was not able to provide an aggregate rate of retirements for Harvard as a whole. According to Nina Zipser, dean for faculty affairs and planning within FAS, during the past five years, an average of seven FAS professors have retired annually—a bit less than 1 percent of the total population. (Under the retirement program, that rate will tick up to about 10 annually.) Characterizing matters, Singer noted that there have been "relatively few” in most years, because “Being a tenured professor is a very nice job”: faculty members tend to love their work, are rarely physically constrained, and in fact often continue their intellectual work in retirement. (In FAS and other faculties, a professor who relinquishes his or her tenured status and salary can request “research professor” status for five years, making it easier to qualify for continued research-grant funding and for teaching assignments.) Particularly in the past couple of years, it has been Singer's impression that the rate of retirements was “very depressed” (as the financial bear market eroded the value of retirement accounts, and as faculty members awaited the details of the pending retirement program and then worked through its effect on their individual circumstances; those effects, if any, are captured in the figure Zipser provided for FAS).

Singer noted that the median age of those who accepted one of the retirement options was 70, and that those who enrolled primarily chose the longer-term plans: more than half elected the two-year path, and another one-third selected the four-year path. That was reassuring, she said, in that the University had not sought a “mass exodus” of faculty members in any one year. The self-selection, she said, was “good for the faculty and good for the institution. 

Singer’s annual report notes that 40 of the 46 participating professors (87 percent) are white males; four (9 percent) are white women; and two are minorities (3 percent). Absent exact data, she said that those proportions roughly equal the demographic composition of tenured professors in the eligible age cohort. 

To that extent, the retirements may have some effect—albeit slight—on the diversity of the affected faculties in the future. During the past academic year, according to the annual report, Harvard hired 64 new faculty members externally: 44 assistant professors, 7 associate professors, and 13 full professors. Of that cohort, Singer said, 30 are white males, 22 are women, and 21 are members of identified minorities (4 blacks, 4 Latinos, 12 Asians, and one dual-counted under current categorization standards)—clearly, more diverse than the retiring professors.


But determining what effects such hiring has on the composition of the faculties is not a simple calculation of retirements versus new appointments. In a report to the FAS faculty meeting on October 19, professor of biology Elena Kramer, chair of the Standing Committee on Women, noted that in the humanities and social sciences (about 60 percent of FAS ranks), the overwhelming number of assistant and associate professors leave Harvard before reaching tenured status. For those junior faculty members hired between 1998 and 2003, the attrition totaled 72 percent in arts and humanities, and 85 percent in the social sciences. Since 2005, junior faculty members have been hired explicitly on a tenure track; but structural issues affecting employment in those fields, and cultural issues within Harvard’s departments, still make a major difference in translating those appointments into successful ascent up the faculty ladder to the tenured level.

Singer noted “steady progress” in diversifying the faculty, even as she acknowledged that the pace is slow because “95 percent” of the professors present in any one year were at Harvard the prior year (and obviously because the majority of any departures are in the more diverse, but untenured, junior faculty ranks, as noted). As of now, 22 percent of the University’s tenured professors are women, up from 18 percent in the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 academic years. In total, 18 percent of Harvard faculty members are members of some minority group, but the populations are so small in many instances that the development and diversity annual report gives absolute numbers by school, rather than percentages (as are displayed for the faculties' composition by gender.) All of the growth in the size of Harvard's faculty from those earlier years has been in the tenured ranks—of late, increasingly from internal promotions as opposed to external appointments. (Internal promotions were 20 of 41 tenure appointments in 2008-2009, and 29 of 47 in 2009-2010.) That indicates progress to tenure from that more diverse pool of junior-faculty members, of course—but it also means that the more diverse junior-faculty ranks themselves have diminished (from 523 in 2003-2004 to 485 in the current academic year), reflecting both promotions and the recently reduced rate of hiring (given financial constraints).

In all, Singer said, “This is a new Harvard,” both in its turning to internal candidates for tenured positions and becoming more systematic about offering retirement options for the most senior faculty members. In terms of gradually yielding a more diverse faculty, she said, the trends are evident, even if in light of the faculty’s largely settled composition from year to year, the “progress is all at the margins.”

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