The real merit in emeriti…

Life has just reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write this one for a while. I won’t go into that, but a question I’ve long contemplated is: What is the point of emeritus professors? Why have them? What value do they even bring?

Most of us have crossed our fair share of emeritus professors. The old guys (they’re almost universally male) who, on reaching forced retirement at 65 or thereabouts, decide the last thing they want to do is stop being a professor, and so in exchange for a salary to redeploy on someone much younger and, in many cases, working on something that’s important now rather than 30 years ago, the university gives a title and a desk and an institutional affiliation.

Many are quite benign. They come and go for a little while, slowing down as the grant money runs out and they gradually find more interesting things to do. They probably don’t add a lot to the department as a whole, but they don’t cost it a lot either, so why not? It’s like the academic equivalent of a golden handshake, I guess, since many of us seem to see more work as a reward somehow (strange, I know).

Some range from being mildly annoying to a right pain in the neck. Continuing to pursue their own interests, even if they’re sometimes 100% anti-parallel to the interests of the department, via some mix of Machiavellianism, threats, intimidation or militant resistance. I will spare said emeriti the indignity of having their sins laid bare here, but I’m sure enough of us have seen it for my earlier words to be justified. Others do their best to keep the department culture and/or demographics trapped in the 1960s or 70s or whatever decade they consider to be the golden years of academia.

And the trouble with an emeritus position is that it’s easily granted from above and then conveniently forgotten, while the holder lives on another 20-30 years, popping out of the shadows occasionally for a short spree of trouble like a departmental cold sore.

And then, more rarely, there’s the really good emeritus professor. Some of us know examples, often on other campuses as they aren’t nearly as common. And when I’ve talked to people on this topic in the past, it’s interesting how a small handful of names always get mentioned. These are the ones who bring true value to the role, which becomes more like that really nice grandparent you sometimes met as a child. They know everyone in the department, and not only do they get along with them well but they see it as their role to advance their colleagues’ interests as much or even more so than their own. They are helpful with advice, not in a smug or arrogant or condescending way, not chewing your ear off or pontificating loudly at every morning tea, but more in the way that people all feel like they can go seek their council when needed, without judgement or self-interest getting in the way. They realise that their job, as an emeritus professor, is to build legacy, not by pushing to grow their own research, that time has passed, but by being there for the department they worked in, helping to advance the next generation by offering them their one key advantage — years of experience at having to work through many of the issues that their junior colleagues are encountering for the first time. And that’s often less a job of telling people what to do than hearing them out and then guiding them to their own smarter decisions bearing in mind that modern contexts can often be quite different to 20 or 30 years ago.

I think universities could be far more discerning in their decisions of who to give this role to, and more the case, they should completely change their definition of ‘merit’ from thinking about just E for academic excellence and more to thinking about the other two letters ‘us’. Yep, it might be a terrible pun, but the merit in emeritus should be about excellence for us, namely the department that will be hosting them for however many years. There should be wide consultation from the department on who gets given the role, from the top to the bottom. There should be references sought, selected by people other than the candidate. There could even be an anonymous vote within the department that requires more than 2/3 to vote yes for the role to be granted. The role and requirements should be more carefully specified, and more tightly focussed on ability to humbly serve others using outstanding interpersonal skills and impeccable ethics and morals than on past research performance alone.

Start looking at merit the right way, and we might start seeing more of the good ones and a lot less of the bad ones.

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