Management Matters: Faculty Retirement – Maintaining Identity and Purpose

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“After 30-plus years of grading papers and exams, giving lectures (yet again!), hiring young colleagues, attending faculty meetings, serving on committees, writing grants, and going to conferences, academic life can begin to feel … a little stale, a little repetitive. When that happens, people begin to contemplate retirement as an opportunity to make a fresh start at something new and possibly unrelated to their academic career.” (Fitzgerald) ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Fitzgerald’s description applies to almost every professional who has had a long career. Just change the list of activities to the duties of any profession, and after 40 years of doing them, the duties become a bit boring and stale. A doctor seeing patients. A consultant leading change management processes.

In this month’s column, I explore a few identity and financial aspects of faculty transitioning to retirement and some practical approaches to helping people retire with their sense of identity and purpose intact.

Much like faculty, management consultants are experts in their field. They have often published and might be speaking regularly about their area of expertise. They are also engaged in interesting dialogue and deep change with their clients. This identity and the recognition it brings are hard to leave behind.

At OPG, we have been planning and thinking about the Partners’ retirement for years. I’m one of two Partners, the younger by 5 years. Tony Panos, the other Partner at OPG, has already begun our step-down retirement process. To ensure continuity for our clients and for the firm, Partners step down over a period of years, going from full-time to 75% to 50% to 25% time, and then being on-call if the firm needs them and they are available. It takes 4 years to get to full retirement. These retirement conversations start years in advance, creating a culture of positivity around aging, retirement, and co-creation of the retirement pathway. OPG gives the retiree or potential retiree a lot of leeway in creating what works for them, if it also works for the firm. At some point, as the staff member gets close to retiring, OPG does ask the person to commit to a loose retirement phase-out plan:

Tony shares his experience and thoughts:

“Several years ago, when I first heard about ‘phased retirement,’ I was apprehensive of the value of phasing out. At the time, I was steeped in the old concept that you choose a date, flip the switch, and retire. I did not consider the psychological shock that retirement creates for the retiree and the organization.

From OPG’s founding days, the leadership team discussed the concept of phased retirement and the value it brings to both the organization and the retiree. As the first ‘test case’ at OPG, my experience has been nothing short of excellent.

Phased retirement does require discipline on the part of the retiree to maintain healthy boundaries while balancing preparing for retirement and giving back to the organization. I started phased retirement in July of 2022. On July 1, I went from full time to ¾ time. My struggle, at that time, was maintaining the ¾-time boundaries, because once moving to ¾ time, my brain was still on full-time; I did not make the psychological transition away from defining my relationship from full-time to 3/4.

Redefining that relationship to work is a key transition to effectively retiring. Over the course of the phased approach, the retiree is getting that relationship right.

In September 2023, I dropped to 50% time. Moving to 50% time made it easier to maintain the boundaries. A key component of phased retirement is decreasing the work commitments of the retiree, including redefining the retiree’s relationship to the work and the organization. For example, once I moved to 50% work effort, my contributions to OPG’s work moved to teaching, sales, training my replacement, and advising the firm. For me, that has been extremely rewarding.

From a psychological perspective, easing into retirement has had the following benefits to me and the firm:

  • The personal financial transition is phased as well, which prepares you for the next phase of life.
  • Planning with my wife on how we will use our time in retirement.
  • Having one foot in the retired side and one in the work side is helping me move toward retirement without having the shift happen on one predetermined date. In a small way, I equate this transition to getting ready for a long vacation. In the phased approach, the transition and preparation is happening over an extended period of time, which is much more relaxing and natural.
  • The work team has time to adjust to my departure.
  • I can stay connected to an organization I have helped create and, through the transition, continue to work with my business partner to redefine my relationship to OPG even after retirement.
  • For the firm, by not completely disappearing one day, it prevents the shock and loss of a long-time member of the firm. It gives the staff an opportunity to tap into my knowledge and history along the way.
  • There is no sudden leadership vacuum in the firm. in this case, the leadership team has been an advocate of the phased retirement, including the ups and downs of the transition and how to adjust going forward. Laura and I regularly find time to discuss the process and the impact it is having on me and the organization, a perpetual learning opportunity.

Structurally one other item that OPG incorporates into phased retirement is salary adjustment for the transition. At OPG we have created a policy of when moving down in active time, we add a buffer of salary to compensate the retiree for their natural tendency to work beyond the reduced time. For example, my 50% time comes with 60% salary.

I continue to be surprised that more companies and organizations do not offer phased retirement. I have come across several firms we work with that are dead set against this approach. They have not been able to think through the benefits to the organization and the retiree (especially in building their commitment to the success of the organization as a result of this process).”

Recent longevity research advises against leaving such a strong purpose-driven identity behind unless it is replaced with a purpose-driven activity in retirement. In the Netflix series, “Live to 100: The Blue Zones,” which highlights Dan Buettner’s research on aging, there are five longevity factors in communities with ‘super-agers:’

  • Mostly eat a plant-based diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Drink moderate amounts of alcohol
  • Get enough sleep
  • Have a sense of purpose or a spiritual practice
  • Have strong family and social networks, which involve frequent socializing and human contact

Retiring from Academe

Tenured faculty, and their institutions, sometimes struggle with this transition to retirement. Faculty struggle because of financial or emotional reasons. “For institutions…(a)cademic departments are dependent on two groups of scholars: junior ones (who bring energy, new ideas, and excitement to the enterprise) and senior ones (who bring reputation, gravitas, and experience). When seniors choose not to retire, and juniors can’t be hired because of a fixed or declining number of faculty lines, the intellectual balance of a department gets out of whack.” (Fitzgerald)

I spoke to two academic leaders, Nancy Niemi, (President, Framingham State University, Massachusetts) and Emily Bakemeier (Vice Provost for Arts and Faculty Affairs, Yale University, Connecticut) about their respective institutions’ approach to faculty retirement. Niemi’s institution is public and has unionized faculty; Bakemeier’s institution is private and well-endowed, and faculty are not unionized.

A common issue that Nancy Niemi points out is “having faculty who might have benefitted by retiring sooner. There is no easy off-ramp. No mechanism for having a conversation about retirement with faculty. The biggest concern is when one department has several faculty whose output and contributions may have diminished. That’s hard on a department, especially if it’s small.”

“It’s not an easy conversation (retirement). It’s not done all that often because usually we hope the faculty member knows when they’re ready,” says Emily Bakemeier.

Both Yale and Framingham State University are addressing the financial, emotional, and identity issues around faculty retirement:

Financial Challenges

There are financial challenges for the retiree and the academic institution. Nancy Niemi points out the financial challenges for academic institutions in balancing a department’s desire to retain the funds when a faculty member retires: “A chair and dean want reassurances from our provost that she’ll give them a line (faculty position) back. There’s a process now that we put in place where we use data to figure out where we should invest in hiring faculty.’ The dean or chair must make the case. When people are thinking about retiring, they do in many cases have their departments health in mind.”

Yale has a creative phased retirement program, the details of which Emily shared with me: “We put in place something called the phased retirement program which allows for a three-year phase into retirement. A tenured faculty member who has been at Yale full-time for 10 years or more, and their age plus years of service equals 75), qualifies for the program. They must sign up before their 70th birthday. They then have three years where they must put in 50% effort. During the first year, they are paid 100%; second year, 75%; third year, 50%.

For potential retirees, the financial challenges are whether they will have enough income to sustain a lifestyle they want. This requires retirement planning decades in advance of retirement age. Many retirees also report a change in relationship to spending because they are now on fixed incomes.

Emotional and Identity Challenges

Nancy Niemi notes, “Our retiring faculty wanted the email they’ve been using professionally, sometimes for their whole careers. My father, who retired at 75 from academe, still has the same email he had when he was a full-time professor. That’s a small but significant piece of identity. Using the library was another identity perk. Another identity-sustaining perk is allowing retired faculty to still apply for grants and sponsored projects if they go through the University’s Grants and Sponsored Projects Office. This also benefited the University.”

Nancy shared further insights from her father’s retirement.  “I’m going to use my father as an example because he was an academic for 54 years. My parents moved back to Wisconsin where all their family is. They left Rochester after 55 years. The major benefit of Wisconsin for them was that they have a large social network, but it was not one in which my father could have the kinds of discussions he did with his colleagues.”

watch my father suffer. It’s hard to understand what a professor does. He doesn’t have that intellectual outlet. What do I do afterwards? How do I take that identity? What do I do with the conversations that come up that are not intellectually deep?”

As Fitzgerald concludes in her article, “Academe is unlike other professions in many ways; one is that it depends upon the intellectual energy, daring, and ambition of young scholars. We senior scholars need to get out of the way, graciously and with dignity. A great deal of the power, glory, and heart of our departments and universities is there because of our work, but we need to recognize when it is time to pass that on to the next generation.” I would suggest this is true of all professions.

Tips for faculty retirement management and support

  • Here’s a link to Yale’s faculty phased retirement program: Yale’s Phased Faculty Retirement Program
  • Fitzgerald, in her article quoted earlier, recommends four activities:
    • Talk about retirement options early and often.
    • Keep emeritus professors involved in real ways.
    • Offer them an office in the department.
    • Cater to the individual.
  • CCI Consulting recommends five activities to help employees with the transition to retirement; you can substitute “faculty” for “employee” in the suggestions; Click here for full article
    • Assess Your Culture
    • Support Early Retirement Planning
    • Offer Flexible Alternatives
    • Take a Holistic Approach
    • Recognize Them

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Prior “Management Matters” columns

In case you’d like to look back, in the first eleven columns of “Management Matters,” I have covered:

  1. Leading in academe and the spheres of influence.
  2. The identity shift from scholar to leader, and the management progression.
  3. The paradoxical tensions a leader must hold.
  4. Ways to clear out your to-do list so you can focus on more purpose-driven work.
  5. Handling difficult conversations (with joy!).
  6. Fake consensus — using the right group decision-making method for the problem at hand.
  7. Microlevers™ — small moves for big workplace culture change.
  8. Charrettes — collective intense effort to produce amazing results.
  9. Shared vision as a guiding star.
  10. Leading through visibility.
  11. The four-day workweek.
  12. Personal versus professional authenticity
  13. Giving Feedback – ‘Speedback’

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Sources and Resources

  • A Professor’s Last Crucial Decision: When to Retire; Deborah K. Fitzgerald; May 30, 2018; Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Interview: Emily Bakemeier, Vice Provost, Arts and Faculty Affairs, Yale University; interviewed by Laura Freebairn-Smith on November 1, 2023.
  • Interview: Nancy Niemi, President, Framingham State University; interviewed by Laura Freebairn-Smith on November 13, 2023.
  • https://cciconsulting.com/how-to-help-employees-transition-to-retirement/
  • “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” Film; National Geographic; Netflix; highlighting Dan Buettner’s research on aging

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About the author

Laura Freebairn-Smith is a Partner and Co-founder of Organizational Performance Group (OPG), a management consulting firm that believes people and their ability to work together are critical to the success of your organization. She holds an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Systems. She has taught as faculty and guest lecturer at Yale, Georgetown, Central CT State University, and the University of New Haven. She was formerly the creator and Director of the Organizational Development & Learning Center at Yale. For more information on Laura and her work, visit www.orgpg.com.