Navigating the Challenges of Faculty Retirement Incentives

illustration of a news article


This article briefly reports the results of an informal poll of academic deans and offers expert advice from Jennifer Faust, a former associate vice president for academic affairs who has extensive experience in faculty affairs administration, including strategic planning, labor relations and grievance handling, faculty policy, faculty and department chair training and development, and faculty personnel management.

It is widely recognized that the professoriate in the US is aging; with no mandatory retirement age and on the heels of sometimes-devastating drops in financial markets, faculty members are opting to delay retirement. A recent survey conducted by TIAA-CREF found that nearly one-third of faculty surveyed expect to work until at least 70 years of age (as compared to 25% of workers in other fields).

At the same time, most colleges and universities face dwindling budgets, a factor that favors the lower salaries of newly hired professors and adjuncts. In addition, some—though by no means all—tenured faculty are less productive in late career stages. These factors have led a number of academic deans to ask: how might we incentivize faculty retirements?

Asking Academic Deans About Their Approach

In March 2014, Academic Impressions conducted an informal poll of about 70 academic deans, to learn how they were approaching this issue. Of these, about 40 identified incentivizing faculty retirement as an issue for their institution.

Of those:

  • Nearly one half noted that they are pursuing efforts to incentivize faculty retirement, but that they are seeing limited success.
  • One fourth noted they are pursuing such efforts and that these efforts are proving highly successful.
  • Another fourth are not currently pursuing efforts to incentivize faculty retirement but regard such efforts as a priority in the next 12 months.

We asked this group of deans to provide detail about the incentives they offer and the challenges they have been facing. A review of their responses reveals two findings that may help to explain the limited success of some of these initiatives – and reveal missed opportunities and critical considerations that deans need to be aware of.

Finding 1

Most deans are only looking at monetary incentives.

8 out of 10 deans offer financial incentives, and 4 out of 10 deans offer to shift the role of retiring faculty to emeritus status.

Only one dean responded to our survey indicating other strategies, such as shifting senior faculty to an administrative role or engaging them in a significant administrative project, a “swansong” approach that several institutions have taken to both recognize faculty for a lifetime of service and ensure that the institution benefits from their expertise and accumulated knowledge of the campus community.


When asked what questions they would have for a panel of experts on the issue, several deans asked how they could retire senior faculty while still keeping them connected with the campus community and ensuring that their knowledge of the organization and of their department is not simply “lost.” Inviting select retiring faculty to a special advisory board – with real work to achieve – can be one strategy for achieving this.

For example, suppose you form an advisory board of senior faculty and alumni with a vested interest in a specific discipline, to address issues such as student retention or student recruitment into that discipline. This serves multiple purposes: it offers an opportunity to keep your best retiring faculty connected with the institution, it engages your alumni in the real work of the institution and connects them with the faculty they remember, and it generates creative and informed ideas to address real problems.

While most efforts to encourage faculty retirement start and stop at cash incentives, some of the deans responding to our poll did describe various phased and sophisticated plans. Here are some examples:

  • Offering one or two semesters of paid sabbatical.
  • Offering one year of full compensation after retirement, and then phasing out compensation by a fixed percentage each year for a fixed number of years.
  • Moving full-time faculty to part-time workload and salary while maintaining full-time benefits, for a limited time.
  • Adding, with the incentive, the opportunity to teach 1-2 classes/year, for up to five years after retirement, for double the pay an instructor would normally receive.

In fact, both monetary and non-monetary incentives are important to faculty considering retirement. When approaching the issue of incentivizing retirement, institutions must understand that for many (perhaps most) faculty members, the potential loss of status, purpose, or even “meaning” that retirement is perceived to bring with it may prove a deterrent. It is for this reason that emeritus status can be an effective strategy, as it mitigates the loss of status that would otherwise accompany retirement.

Finding 2

Deans need more guidance on how to handle difficult cases within the operative constraints (such as human resources policy, law, and union restrictions).   

When we asked academic deans what their most pressing questions were concerning faculty retirement incentives, most wished for more information on what incentives are most effective, particularly with regards to underperforming senior faculty, and guidance on how to handle incentives with the parity required in a union environment.

It is important not to approach retirement incentives as a solution for issues with underperforming, aging faculty. We note that few underperforming faculty will be enticed into retirement, if it is the case that they have been “getting away with” sub-par performance for a significant period of time.

Deans must approach such cases carefully, warns Jennifer Faust, former associate vice president for academic affairs at California State University: “If the university has a long practice of laissez-faire management,” she cautions, “(where, for example, complaints often go unheeded and even negative performance reviews have no consequences), but suddenly Professor X (who is elderly and in failing health) faces strict enforcement, you will have a problem on your hands—even where the policy is legitimate and Professor X’s behavior is contrary to policy/expectations.”

The situation is not hopeless, but deans faced with situations such as this have to focus on the performance of all faculty members in the college, and enforce consequences for all those who are underperforming.

Knowing Your HR Basics

When considering such cases, Faust suggests that it is critical for deans and department chairs to understand some employment law basics. For example:

  • There is no mandatory retirement age for professors or other higher education workers.
  • Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age; such law protects all employees over the age of 40.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

It is perfectly acceptable to help underperforming faculty leave your institution, but this issue is distinct from retirement incentive programs. The bottom line is that deans need to carefully differentiate issues of incentivizing retirement and dealing with underperforming faculty at all stages/ages, and to apply appropriate strategies to the issue at hand.