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The elusive emeritus

What does this distinguished designation mean in Canadian universities? Well, these days, it really depends on who you ask.

By TIM JOHNSON | AUG 17 2011
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A few months ago, Karen Slater Padovani set out to find the answer to what seemed, at first glance, like a fairly simple question. Working on a routine policy review as the secretary to the board of governors and senate at Acadia University, Ms. Slater Padovani sent out a query to colleagues across the country, asking for their school’s policy on awarding emeritus status to retiring faculty. The responses poured in – and what she heard back was far from simple. “Every institution handles it a little bit differently,” she says. “There’s doesn’t seem to be a cross-country standard.”

Dating back to the 18th century, the term “emeritus” was originally used in ecclesiastical circles for those who were distinguished and retired but continued to perform certain duties. Today, the meaning of this honour varies widely across Canada and, it appears, is being applied to an ever-increasing and ever-widening swath of university professionals. While some universities still award emeritus only to full professors, others have expanded it to include associate professors, and some include worthy untenured faculty. Several schools have created emeritus titles for retiring administrators.

The former use of the title for only a select group has given way to a very liberal approach for retiring full and associate professors, says J.T. Stevenson, president of the Retired Academics and Librarians of the University of Toronto, known as RALUT. “It’s becoming fairly automatic now.”

He suggests the trend is an outgrowth of “rank inflation.” While universities used to adhere to three levels – assistant professor (for pre-tenured faculty on the tenure track), associate professor and full professor – this has exploded into a wide array of titles, an increasing number of chairs, and terms like “university professor” and “distinguished professor” popping up. Similarly, after U of T made the emeritus title available to associate professors who retire, it created a new rank of “university professor emeritus” above regular professors emeriti, notes Dr. Stevenson, who is professor emeritus in U of T’s philosophy department.

Some schools, however, are sticking to an exclusive standard. At Nipissing University, the title has gone to only a small handful of retiring professors, says Susan Robineau, secretary of Nipissing’s board of governors. Nipissing is a relatively small, young school in North Bay, Ontario, one of the smaller home towns for a Canadian university. Its professors emeriti maintain a high status on campus and in the city, notes Ms. Robineau. “Here, it’s still a very special thing.”

University of Manitoba, too, has maintained exclusivity around the emeritus title for the past 25 years. The title is conferred on just a small portion of retiring professors, those who have demonstrated excellence in teaching and research, says university secretary Jeff Leclerc.

Some point out that even when the title is automatic, it doesn’t mean it’s devalued. At the University of Western Ontario, ever since the faculty unionized 10 years ago, all retiring associate and full professors who’ve worked at the university at least five years receive the title, says Alan Weedon, vice-provost, faculty, planning and policy. But everyone who gets the title is tenured, he adds. “The emeritus title simply recognizes that career-long affiliation beyond the normal retirement age.”

At the University of Regina, Annette Revet, executive director of university governance, recently reviewed the university policy on who receives the emeritus title with a view to developing policies on who is eligible and who should award the title. “It gets complicated,” she says. “Is it just the academic ranks – just professor emeritus? Or can it be someone on the administrative side – president emeritus, vice-president emeritus, chancellor emeritus, registrar emeritus?”

Not surprisingly, Ms. Revet found that each university had a different way of using the title. Some have special designations for former faculty members who retire while they’re in an administrative position. Some schools award these people an emeritus title based on their last academic position, while others are developing new policies on this.

Ms. Revet has concerns about a situation when administrators are charged with awarding the title to their peers. “Our president does all the emeritus titles here, but if we’re going to introduce something like a president emeritus, I don’t think the president should sign off on the former president,” she says.

At St. Thomas University in Fredericton, administrators recently encountered this very situation. There, the emeritus distinction is awarded to a select few who display extraordinary merit (it has been given to just four faculty members in the past decade). Last year, the university honoured Daniel O’Brien, its long-serving former president, as the school’s first president emeritus. “He really was a person who significantly transformed St. Thomas, everyone recognized that this was an exceptional presidency,” notes Barry Craig, the school’s vice-president, academic.

But with the current process of awarding the status (an advisory committee makes recommendations to the president, who in turn passes the recommendations along to the board of governors), Dr. Craig says this may be too close for comfort if the honour is meant for an outgoing pre-sident. The board of governors is working on a new set of criteria and a process that eliminates the president from the chain of command when it comes to this special situation.

Despite the variety of policies and procedures for conferring emeritus status, there are some commonalities. Where the title isn’t automatic, there is usually a multi-step process to determine who receives it, involving special committees, senate and the board of governors. Once awarded, the title comes with privileges, including access to campus facilities like the library (and sometimes an office and laboratory), an invitation to take part in convocation and a university e-mail address. Almost always, it’s a lifetime appointment; cases where emeritus faculty have lost the title because they started doing research or teaching at a different institution are extremely rare.

But, says Dr. Stevenson of RALUT, the most valuable attribute for retired faculty is the standing that comes with emeritus. “If you retire without it,” he asserts, “then you have no status and no rank within the university.”

While the title confers distinction on people who continue to teach part-time, its real importance is for those who want to continue doing research. Non-emeritus professors feel their unranked position places them at a distinct disadvantage in the fierce competition for grants from research funding bodies, he says.

That’s definitely been the case for Pamela Asquith, who retired several years ago as a full professor from the University of Alberta’s anthropology department but without the emeritus rank. “I decided not to apply for any large grants, thinking that it would be difficult without the emeritus status,” she says.

Dr. Asquith’s situation is exceptional. She retired 18 months shy of the official retirement age of 55 and fell short of the 10 years of tenured service required for the emeritus honour because she had split her time between the U of A and University of Calgary and spent several of her U of A years doing a postdoc and as a SSHRC Canada Research Fellow, neither of which counted as tenured time. This meant that, despite assurances that she would receive the status as a special case (and the faculty of arts unanimously approved her for it), in reality her retirement was deemed a resignation, and she has been unsuccessful in having this decision reversed and the status awarded.

Navigating a research career in retirement without emeritus status has been difficult on both a professional and personal level, says Dr. Asquith. The frustrations have been multiple, from very basic irritations like her inability to access online journal articles (including some of her own) because her library access was restricted, to her reluctance to apply for grants from Asian bodies that she’d dealt with in the past because she no longer could rely on the resources of the university to administer them.

“China, Korea, Japan, they expect to be dealing with institutions, not individuals,” she says. Dr. Asquith has been able to push forward with some continuing research, partly by gaining adjunct status at the University of Victoria.

In some ways, she says, being refused emeritus status amounts to a dismissal of one’s life work. “Academia is not a job. It’s your life. And so that’s why it’s even worse to be suddenly without any status,” she says. “It’s personally extremely hurtful, really.”

As faculty members continue to work long after their formal retirement, this issue won’t go away. “Unlike people who work on assembly lines who are counting the days until they can retire, academics start much later than most others, and many are really enjoying what they’re doing and want to continue,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Emeritus status may be a professor’s only “lifeline” to the university, its resources and, especially, its ability to endorse and administer grant applications, he says.

These three simultaneous trends – the quick evolution of the title, the broadening pool of eligible candidates, and the growing consequence of what it confers – are leading some observers to call for more agreement among Canadian universities on how to award the emeritus status and what it means. Others argue that each university is unique, and standardization would mean dismissing the individual history and heritage of each institution.

Moreover, who would be responsible for creating and enforcing national, universal standards? “Is it government? Is it politicians? If so, then that’s arguably a threat to the autonomy of the universities,” says Dr. Weedon of Western.

With the trend towards faculty working later in life, Dr. Turk says the solution is a guaranteed, basic level of institutional support for professors on retirement. That would leave the emeritus title as a purely honorific designation, perhaps closer to its original meaning in academic circles. “I think if that were done,” says Dr. Turk, “a lot of the controversy about emeritus status would dissipate.”

Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based writer who specializes in education, social and political issues, human interest and travel. He’s a three-time finalist for a National Magazine Award.

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  1. Will van den Hoonaard / July 14, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    I was glad to read this article. At my university, there is no support for Emeriti. It is impossible to use copying and printing facilities. While thankfully it is still possible to maintain an email account through the university (like all retired faculty), it is not possible to maintain or update one’s computer,let alone computer programs. There is no common space.
    I retired 9 years ago and was designated Emeritus. Since then, I have authored 5 books,countless book chapters and articles, encyclopedia articles, book reviews, plenary addresses and conference papers, But who is counting, eh? In all instances, I acknowledge the University.
    The only informal recognition comes from the 2 secretarial aides in the department, but I feel sometimes like a ghost moving about on the campus. There oought to be a movement towards a more concrete and viable recognition of Emeriti. W.C. van den Hoonaard

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