A New Year’s Resolution

The fall semester is coming to an end and the new year is approaching. It is the season for reflection and resolution setting. What went well in my classes and research this semester? What do I need to tweak before offering the class again? What resources do I need to keep my research going? What new “thing” did my students come up with that I need to be mindful of as I plan for the spring? These are the ruminations of a seasoned professor. I know some of my younger colleagues are just too panicked about the chaos of teaching (and research and service) to have much time to consider their successes, strengths, challenges, and flaws. We geographers have paid close attention to early career faculty, primarily through the Geography Faculty Development Alliance and three excellent publications Practicing GeographyAspiring Academics, and Teaching College Geography (available through the AAG Bookstore). This has been enormously helpful in producing a generation of young, astute, and savvy geographers. However, a group we have not paid much attention to is mid- and late-career faculty.

This is true across higher education. There is very little professional development to assist faculty after they receive tenure, and little has been written about strategies to support senior colleagues. Mid-career faculty especially face significant emotional and professional challenges. Institutions invest considerable resources to start careers but then, post-tenure, the training wheels are off and faculty are supposed to be successful in obtaining their own research funding. Early career faculty are often protected from service, but then, as associate professors, they are magically expected to become effective, engaged committee members and managers of academic programs. Many crumple under the high expectations placed on them by their departments, complaining that after tenure more work is dumped on them. In some instances mid-career faculty can feel neglected, receiving less attention and feedback, either positive or negative. The initial relief at gaining tenure can lead to dismay, a feeling of ennui, epitomized by the thought, “Now, what do I do?” Setting realistic career goals about the kinds of research to conduct and courses to teach can be daunting. This is a time of change—and there is little support, advice, or counseling available to assist. It is also a particularly problematic stage of career for women and other underrepresented members of faculties. Decisions about family, service, types of scholarship to engage in, and other concerns become more significant. While some faculty are able to embark on the path to the next hurdle—to become a full professor—many drift.

Senior faculty present challenges of a different sort to departments and universities who are tasked with keeping their workforce dynamic and productive. As their fervor to conduct research wanes, many older faculty may not be as productive as they once were. In a traditional sense, they may not contribute to their department’s “metrics” as they did. Many experienced faculty feel free to seek new experiences including different types of teaching; others assume interests in faculty governance and administration. Still others take on the role of the department curmudgeon. And while many senior faculty are still at the top of their game, some face the vagaries of age including diminishing energy, and are, thus, less able to carry on full duties. Unfortunately, few administrators are able to deal with such sensitive circumstances.

Whatever they decide to do, increasingly senior faculty are not deciding to retire. TIAA-CREF reports that while one-third of tenured faculty over 50 years of age expect to retire by a “normal” age, fully two-thirds plan to work past normal retirement age. The implications of this are worth careful consideration. Senior faculty can be divided into three groups according to the report Understanding the Faculty Retirement (Non) Decision (TIAA-CREF Institute 2015): “traditional retirees” who expect to retire at the normal age (35 percent); “reluctantly reluctant” faculty who would like to retire at the normal age but feel compelled to work longer, usually for financial reasons (16 percent); and the “reluctant by choice” who want to work past normal retirement age (49 percent). Interestingly a higher percentage of women faculty are traditional retirees (48 percent to men 31 percent) and many fewer fall into the reluctant by choice category, 37 percent versus 53 percent for men.

So this is the situation. I am not sure why we have paid so little attention to our mid- and late-career faculty but I have begun my own one-person campaign to try to encourage us to begin to invest time and energy into this area. The topic will be on the agenda for the Healthy Departments Leadership Workshop this summer at the University of Tennessee; we will explore promising practices suggested in the literature that does exist. If you are interested in some of these strategies, please contact me and I will share the resources I have with you.

And while managing faculty is a special concern for department heads/chairs and other administrators, it is also something we who care about our colleagues need to be invested in. And that should be all of us. We all play a role in the psychological health of our workplaces. We all need to reach out to our fellow geographers, talk to them, encourage them to develop plans to move forward, to network to gain new skills, to retool, refocus, and restructure their lives as needed. We all need to be advocates for mid- and late-career faculty and to treat them with dignity. How is that for a New Year’s Resolution?

DOI: 10.14433/2016.0001