University Grapples With Wave of Faculty Retirements

This story is the third and final part in a series about hiring and retaining faculty at Boston College.

The average age of faculty members at Boston College has stayed steady over the past decade, ranging between 52 and 54 years old. Yet this stability hides that the fact that the proportion of faculty nearing retirement age has grown, leading some to point out a generational wave of retirements that appears to be backed up by recent years of University data.

“Even as we have probably more older faculty, that’s been offsetted by all the new faculty that we’ve hired,” said Vice Provost for Faculties Billy Soo. “If we had kept the same number of faculty over that ten year period, the median age would have gone up significantly. So that’s sort of balancing out the increasing age.”

As reported in the second installment of this series, the total number of faculty at BC over the 2008 to 2017 period has expanded from 679 to 833.

This period of time has also seen fluctuating faculty retirement numbers. Between 2007 and 2010, 4.5 faculty retired on average. Retirements then increased in the early 2010s, returning to their long-term average, which Soo said was between 10 and 15 per year. The past two years, however, have seen a jump in the number of retirements. Twenty-one faculty members retired last year, and 23 are retiring this year.

Graphic by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor

These fluctuating numbers cause uncertainty for the administration.

“What we fear from an administrative sidepoint is what if they all suddenly say, ‘that’s it, I’m leaving,’” Soo said. “You can’t easily hire faculty, and this is one of the challenges that the departments face. In a year, if you can hire two, that’s a great year.”

In this sense, it appears the University is racing against time. While BC’s faculty base has expanded significantly in recent years, the prospect of above-average faculty retirements could offset efforts of further growth.

In searching for an explanation for these changing numbers, Soo and others suggested that the Great Recession could be contributing to the variance.

“If you’re a little bit older, and thinking of retiring, and your retirement fund has been cut by half, why would you want to retire?” Soo said. “You need to build up the money again, and so that’s what happened.”

The last five years have seen stocks soar. The Dow Jones Industrial Average broke the 26,000 point mark in Jan. 2018, and the S&P 500 has also reached record highs in recent months. In tandem with this market upswing, faculty retirements have risen.

“So we’re above normal,” he said. “And part of that I think is just a catching up, those who did not retire during the financial crisis have suddenly seen the stock market recover, they’re doing well now, so now they’re more comfortable in retiring.”

Matthew Rutledge, a research economist at BC’s Center for Retirement Research, has analyzed which of factors are most influential in a person’s decision to retire. He has found that wealth shocks, such as the recent financial crisis, have less of an influence on the decision to retire than other factors. Some include the retirement of a spouse, a change in family dynamics, or if individuals have to start taking care of their grandchildren.

While wealth shocks may not be the largest explanatory factor deciding to retire, they still appear to have had some impact. Rutledge suggested that faculty may have delayed their retirements if the financial crisis hurt their retirement accounts. While the asset composition of an individual’s savings account differs, the retirement account loss reached 25 percent during the crisis, according to one estimate. U.S. workers’ 401(k)s and IRAs lost about $2.4 trillion in the final two quarters of 2008.

Besides market volatility, Rutledge also cited the improvement in general health outcomes over the past few decades as another factor why many workers, include academics, have decided to prolong their careers. According to Rutledge, today’s average retirement age is now around 64, and will continue to trend upward.

Faculty at BC, however, appear to be retiring later in life. Michael Malec, associate professor of sociology, observed his colleagues who have recently have done so between ages 65 and 72. He is retiring after this year ends at age 77 after working at BC for 50 years, but intends to be around on campus even if he’s not working here.

“I think outside of the house in which I live, I’ll call this my second home and will for a long time to come,” Malec said.

Soo and Rutledge both cited that the lifestyle of an academic is not physically demanding compared to other professions, making it easy to stay on the job past the typical retirement age. Tenure also ensures that faculty can stay as long as they wish.

“There’s lots of things about being an academic that make it so that the average retirement age absolutely should be later,” Rutledge said. “It’s the kind of job where you’re not going to have a lot of physical need, and so any age-related decline would be cognitive.”

Malec also suggested that BC’s culture makes it easy for faculty to stay on campus until late in life. He said the benefits of the University—ranging from the library to technology support–as factors that have kept him coming back year after year, as well as the ability to work at a world-class institution with the city of Boston at his doorstep. Even though he has been perturbed by BC’s stances on social justice on campus over the years, they haven’t been enough to make him quit.

“The evidence is that so many of us stay here,” Malec said. “We say ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that,’ but is it enough to make you think about leaving? No.”

As the University faces external competition in recruiting high-caliber faculty and the prospect of elevated retirements, administrators will continue to grapple with this issue in coming years.

Featured Image by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor