Monday, April 27, 2009

When Is It Time to Retire?

(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)

My tenure of guest-blogging here at the Splintered Mind is coming to an end. My thanks to Eric for having me, and to all the thoughtful comments and responses I received from commentators. In keeping with my retirement from this bit of guest-blogging, I thought I’d post something about retirement and its norms, since I know so little about it.

Everyone knows at least one professor, whether a colleague at their own institution or some other, of whom it is painfully clear to everyone EXCEPT that person that he or she should retire. So I’ve been told. I don’t actually know such a person myself, but it seems a common enough refrain that I’ve started to think about the phenomenon. In particular, I’m worried that some day I’ll be THAT guy, the guy whom everyone (except me) knows ought to retire. So, in support of my then-colleagues and chagrined students of the future, I’m trying to work out some general principles of retirement far in advance, so that I might apply them to my own circumstances. Will you help me?

In what follows, I offer some initial thoughts about the matter, with the acknowledgment that I will surely retract everything I write in this post at some point in the next 40 years.

First, some caveats about the scope of the involved ‘ought’:

(1) Let’s suppose we are talking about professors who have no real financial need to teach, nor whose psychology would collapse in some profound way if he or she were not teaching any longer.

(2) Let us also suppose that retirement here does not necessarily mean that the professor emeritus ceases to participate in life of the profession or perform research in some guise. We are only concerned with retirement from one’s regular full-time faculty position at the university.

And, (3) let us suppose that in surrendering said position the department is left not dramatically worse off from a long-term staffing or workload standpoint. And to anticipate, no, having to hire a replacement doesn’t count as making a department dramatically worse off in the relevant sense. So, the ought in my usage of the phrase “ought to retire” should be regarded as ranging over a somewhat limited set of circumstances.

Given the aforementioned restrictions of scope, then, I’m inclined to put the sense of ought that is my concern in those circumstances as something like this: when ought a (philosophy) professor to retire, from the combined standpoints of the professor’s dignity and the general well being, given no powerful or important disincentives for doing so, but given that there are finite jobs in the profession at large and in one’s own department.

Some further caveats and refinements:

(4) I recognize that some professors have no dignity and/or no aspirations of dignity. Indeed, I may be one. But that is the sort of dirty, specific kind of detail that we shall discretely to the side. It is better to pretend that all professors (and departments) have aspirations of dignity.

(5) Our considered question is manifestly NOT about age. Or, at any rate, it is not directly about age. Age may or may not be correlated with whether some of the conditions I suggest, but chronological age itself is irrelevant to what follows. There are plenty of philosophers working now who, despite having known Kant personally, are under no “ought of retirement” of the sort under present consideration. And, presumably, there are people could never have heard a David Lewis talk but who, if they had any good sense, would do themselves and their departments a favor and would retire from the profession— if only their university had the good sense to offer them a reasonable retirement package!

(Randy Clarke once called my attention to a principled argument to this effect made by Saul Smilansky in Moral Paradoxes, an argument that concludes that most of us should retire immediately in light of the numbers of people who could do our jobs at least as well as we are doing them. Still, let’s ignore this too for the moment.)

These considerations having been noted, I suggest that a professor should retire when some weighted cluster of the following conditions are satisfied (the weights given by contextual features of the person’s dignity and the department’s aspirations for itself and what one’s university values in their faculty members):

When, after 7 years or more since tenure . . .

(a) One’s classes are repeatedly cancelled for low enrollment at a much higher rate than other full-time faculty members.
(b) One’s published research has not been cited in more than 7 years in a scholarly context.
(c) One has not been invited or induced to participate in an extra-departmental committee in more than seven years.
(d) When one has not served the discipline in any notable professional capacity in 10 years (e.g., editing a journal, refereeing papers, organizing conferences, etc.)

Do these conditions seem about right? Should something be added or deleted? How would you weight the conditions for, say, a teaching institution or a research institution? Is there some other sure-fire indicator for when someone should retire?

Admittedly, some of these conditions and numbers are arbitrary. And this is all way too rough and foolish. That’s okay, so long as the arbitrariness and foolishness don’t preclude a useful discussion. And anyway, we shouldn’t expect more precision that then subject matter permits, which must be true since Aristotle said it.

Please bear in mind that I’m not supposing that retirement means retirement from participating in the life of the profession. I’m simply assuming that one is walking away from a formal position that will be promptly filled by a new philosopher delighted by the prospect of employment in a profession with grotesquely fewer jobs than qualified applicants.

So help me out here . . . how will I know when I should retire from the active, full-time professor gig?


Michael said...

Looking at the requirements for Journal citations, I could not help but think of many of my favorite professors at my (tiny, unknown in the mountains of Vermont) teaching-based liberal arts college. Many of the have been teaching for many, many years, but have not done much work in their fields of expertise, mostly due to the fact that their main responsibility is undergraduate teaching. So I'm curious if that requirement would be waived for faculty who are excellent teachers (and so their courses would be filled) but have not stayed actively productive in the field as a professor at a research--or even more prominent--institution would be.
My concern with such requirements is that, while they may offer more jobs to young and intelligent philosophers, I would value their ability to teach more highly than anything else, and that is something that often comes with experience.
But, I guess I'm biased, having chosen to go to a small school and not a University.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm also inclined to think criterion (b) doesn't deserve much weight. Look on the complementary side, too: It wouldn't exclude the poor doddering fool with a few moderately influential articles from 20 years prior.

A better criterion for immersion in contemporary research -- if that's what's really relevant (at best a sufficient criterion, not a necessary one, as Michael suggests) -- would be publication in respected venues.

Brandon said...

Please bear in mind that I’m not supposing that retirement means retirement from participating in the life of the profession. I’m simply assuming that one is walking away from a formal position that will be promptly filled by a new philosopher delighted by the prospect of employment in a profession with grotesquely fewer jobs than qualified applicants.I think it's an interesting question, but I think it is very difficult to answer because the supposition you are making here is not consistent with the way our profession is currently set up. While there are some lucky exceptions, the opportunities people have post-retirement for active participation in the profession are very limited, and those that exist don't come to you -- you have to bustle around in your retirement to find them and keep on top of them, they are expensive. For instance, retirees face many of the problems graduate students do (managing expensive trips on limited budgets, etc.). They have a few more resources (professional and otherwise) to draw from than just-on-the-market graduate students usually do, but our profession also gives a lot more help to graduate students than to retirees.

The reason I think this is important for your question is that only if we have an idea of what sort of thing a retiree can do will we have an idea of where to draw the line for retirement, because retirement is a transition from job-based opportunities to post-job opportunities. If the latter are almost nonexistent for most people, retirement is basically a complete loss of whatever talent and ability the professor still had left, so you wouldn't want to lose any professor who can still make a genuinely positive contribution. If there are lots of opportunities, you don't lose that talent, so you'd want people to start making the transition much earlier.

Ideally, retirement would be the next stage up after tenure: the crown of your professional life, an increase in freedom combined with a new level of opportunity. Sometimes you can see something like what you'd want in the way fancy departments treat their prized emeriti. Even that falls short of ideal, and most people don't even have that.

Manuel Vargas said...

Right, the weighting of these criteria would have to be different depending on the kind of institution. So, a teaching college where few if any publish might not assign much (or any weight) to publication-related criteria. And, I think that it would be ideal to involve some better measure of teaching expertise. However, that is frustratingly difficult to measure in any useful way. So, I think, the issue would be to figure out how to come up with a weighting scheme for teaching effectiveness, indexed to the local scene.

Eric- Good. It seems to me that some publication element should be in the mix, so that there is a way to weigh the importance for research-oriented places. And, I think you are right that citation impact for articles written 20 years ago is the wrong measure. Maybe what I should have said was something like "no citations of work published in the past seven years" or some equivalent. And, of course, this is not incompatible with some criterion of publication in a respected journal.

Manuel Vargas said...


Thanks for the very thoughtful remarks.

I can't speak with any confidence about opportunities for engagement in professional life once one is retired, but much of what you say about diminished opportunities sounds plausible. Indeed, I suspect, retirement from any profession will usually mean diminished opportunities with respect to that profession. And I do think it would make sense for us to set up some mechanism to encourage non-elite-program emeriti to continue to play some role in the profession, perhaps with conference fees and the like structured in much the way we structure them for graduate students. So, yeah, you've convinced me about all of that.

Still, I worry that we tend to grossly overestimate our own worth to the profession in deliberating retirement.

You write that "retirement is basically a complete loss of whatever talent and ability the professor still had left, so you wouldn't want to lose any professor who can still make a genuinely positive contribution." I'm not sure this is the right way to think about things, but even if it is, I respectfully disagree that one wouldn't want to lose any professor who can still make a positive contribution. At least in the situation I'm imagining, the mere ability to make some positive contribution does not outweigh (in my mind) the benefits of hiring a new contributor who has not had a chance to make those contributions in the context of a university job. Indeed, I suspect in the average case of the sort I was considering, the comparison of likely positive contribution will not favor the retiree. In a job market like the current one, the levels of talent, productivity, energy, and ambition in the applicant pool are very high. So, the replacement costs are not obviously stacked in favor of a retiree's appeal to the loss of "whatever talent and ability the professor still has left" even if the loss of talent is the right measure for when to retire.

Moreover, I don't share your sense that the crowning part of one's professional life should be retirement. I think or retirement as just that—retirement from a career, even if one continues to play a less central role in the profession as a consequence. And, in a world with finite careers, it does seem to me that there can be a time to relinquish the opportunities and benefits that come from a career, so long as it is not catastrophic to the retiree in the ways I mentioned.

Having said that, I'm sure I'm missing some perspective on this issue, being a comparatively young-ish (I think?) philosopher who is still presumably decades away from retirement.

Brandon said...

Well, I'm very young-ish too; but I think people at both ends tend to overestimate their personal importance, and the value of their contribution, to their profession and their institutions. Actually, probably in-between, as well; academia is well-suited for producing prima donnas.

The real problem here is that it's put forward as a sort of conflict, the freshly minted vs. those on the verge of retirement, when in fact the conflict is entirely illusory: new scholars are not competing with senior scholars, whether for jobs or anything else. Rather, increasingly limited resources are being distributed among everyone, from New-Blood to Height-of-Career to Venerable-Sage, and it's the people in the middle who are getting first dibs. That's not surprising, but it also means nobody starts asking whether people who are a drag on the profession at 35, of which there are doubtless more than a few, should retire in order to let both eager new graduate students and talented senior scholars continue on longer. But if we really took our reasoning seriously, we'd have to ask that question, too. And yet we don't, which is interesting; it's always new Ph.D.'s glutting the market or senior scholars not retiring early enough, and never middle-aged deadweight forcing everyone to work around them.

Manuel Vargas said...


The issues you raise are very close to an argument Saul Smilansky has run (I think it is in his book 10 Moral Dilemmas). I wanted to bracket some of these more global issues, though, and focus on cases where we start with the assumption that once you get tenure, you have a defeasible right to hang on to that as long as you like.

However, for what it is worth i think we agree that the basic force of the argument I run applies equally to all (or nearly all) career stages (indeed, I noted this in the original post): there are people who should retire, even at mid-career, if doing so does not cause considerable damage to their mental health or their financial well-being.

My bet, though, is that there are comparatively fewer mid- and early-career folks of whom this is true. However, I also agree that folks at every part of the career stage in the academic world are prone to over-estimating their worth (perhaps, especially, accomplished mid-career people!). However, this is only problematic for retirement considerations when the other conditions (especially no substantial financial cost to retiring) obtain, and that is typically at the end of a career.

However, you are right to note that I'm assuming, that people who already have tenure/tenured jobs have some privileged relationship with those jobs, so it is the younger folks who count as creating the glut and mainly the older ones for whom questions about retirement arise.

Saul Smilansky said...

Hi Manuel,

Nice post and good discussion. I am not sure that your view differs that much from the problem as I raised it in "The Paradox of Beneficial Retirement" (ch.2 in my book 10 Moral Paradoxes), except in your being perhaps a bit more lax.

One point that seems to me significant concerns the sort of argument this is. I don't think we should see it as a sort of utilitarian argument. Most people don't think that we have an obligation to give a very large sum of money to Oxfam, but for many people in the conditions you describe retiring early would mean a much greater comparative sacrifice. So if we think about it in terms of a sacrifice for the general good, we might well be reluctant to ask the relevant people to retire, not because that would not do good (it would), but because typically we don't really think that people should sacrifice much for the general good.

The way I construe the argument is an argument from integrity. Think about an easier example, that of a medical doctor, such as a surgeon. You cannot with integrity say that you are a doctor because people's health matters to you, when you know that were you to leave, someone better, who would save the lives of many people that you fail to save, would replace you. If you stay on, you have lost your integrity. [This still doesn't mean that you ought to retire; this is part of what makes it a paradox.] Academic philosophy is as a rule less fatal, but still the best way to understand the issue here might be in terms of integrity. Arguably maintaining their integrity must matter more to people than serving the general good.

Some links to discussions of the paradox, in case anyone is interested:

1. A discussion/interview in BloggingheadsTV (the discussion of retirement appears in the link that is after 16:37 minuets):

2. My reply to James Lenman, who claimed that most academics in fact don't need to reply (I also sum up his arguments); this is from Ratio 2007:

3. A recent discussion in the blog Talking Philosophy, run by Jean Kazez:

Manuel Vargas said...

Thanks, Saul, for the helpful response and for the links. Now everyone should go read them!