The article “When is the right time to retire?” addresses a very important issue, but seems to be rather one-sided in that it emphasizes arguments for faculty retiring as early as possible and even tries to place a bit of a guilt trip on those who don’t.
The article contains suggestions to the effect that younger people will never get jobs if their elders don’t get out of the way, that retirement of older faculty is necessary for university renewal to occur, and that faculty who refuse to retire when they should are too expensive for the university enterprise to remain sustainable.
While I agree that problems involving the professoriate are many and real, I would argue that the article places its focus and criticisms in the wrong direction. There is indeed a dearth of new positions in the university system, and the main reason certainly has to do with money. However, as the article also points out, most faculty continue to leave by age 65 and only one percent are in their 70s. Hardly a major problem, it would seem, and certainly one to which the system should be able to adjust.
Thus the suggestion by one Zita Mendes, that retirement at 60 be “mandatory” to give more deserving young people a chance to start their careers, is particularly misplaced, and is doubly ironic. What Ms. Mendes does not seem to realize is that precisely the same type of specious argument was made not so long ago in society at large, and at universities in particular, to prevent women from receiving employment of almost any kind; jobs, it was widely agreed, should go to men! Equally ironic, it was largely the current crop of aging faculty who, disregarding society’s then prevalent views, encouraged the hiring of serious numbers of women back in the 1970s and ‘80s.
It seems, however, that ageism, the new sexism, will continue to be a factor in our universities. (Until the current crop of younger faculty reach their 60s, when many will undoubtedly opt to postpone retirement as long as they can. At that point 70-year-old scholars likely will be as welcome as female colleagues are today).
I would make a case, not well addressed in the University Affairs article, that our real problem lies not in aging faculty but in burgeoning university bureaucracies. Parkinson’s Law, paraphrased somewhat, states that the number employed in a bureaucracy rises by five to seven percent a year irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.
To illustrate that this law appears to apply to the university system, I point to my own institution where, in the past four academic years (2009/10 to 2013/14), full-time undergraduate student levels have increased by 14.9 percent, government operating grants by 10.5 percent and the number of staff by 10.9 percent. In contrast, the number of faculty has decreased by 5.4 percent so that the number of staff (1,710) is now well over twice the number of faculty (777). Queen’s is a mid-sized university, and I suspect that similar trends are present in many other universities.
What seriously compounds the problem at Queen’s, and probably elsewhere, is that the expansion in size of the bureaucracy has apparently involved a concomitant increase in the numbers of administrators required to run the show. For instance, we currently enjoy the attention of one dean for about every 29 faculty, a ratio that arguably would be more appropriate at the departmental level, as a ratio of faculty to department chairs. Queen’s also employs over 100 directors, one for every 7.5 faculty, a ratio that not only seems extremely inappropriate but is actually worsening. The number of directors at Queen’s has increased by about 49 percent during the past four years.
This leads me to my final, more general point. Many if not most (or even all) of these relatively well-paid administrators do not teach and thus join the overwhelming majority of university employees who are not in the front lines, contributing directly to teaching, the main function of the university.
We are all aware of unfavorable comments in the press about perceived deterioration in the quality of education offered to university students in Canada these days. A variety of criticisms come our way, often reinforced by contrite admissions of inadequacies on our part by senior administrators. Indeed, while I can find many criticisms of university faculty in my collection of relevant columns from, for example, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, I can find only one identifying the root cause of the problem: the growth of expensive university bureaucracies at the expense of ever shrinking faculty numbers.
The imbalance in hiring policies in the Canadian university system is completely consistent with Parkinson’s Law of Bureaucracy, and is arguably the real problem that Canadian academics of all ages and ranks should be addressing.
Mike Baird is professor emeritus (chemistry) at Queen’s University, where he has taught and carried out research for over 47 years. He has received five awards for teaching and five for research.