Millions of 18-year-olds are excited about heading to college this month — leaving home, making friends and taking courses that meet only a few hours a week.
On the first day of classes, however, they may be startled to find that the professor who enters Calculus I or Intro to Philosophy is more than a half-century older than they are.
The phenomenon of the teacher who sticks around well past age 70 has been widely noted, yet colleges have had little success in mitigating its impact.
A survey commissioned by Fidelity Investments and reported at Inside Higher Ed in June found that "some 74 percent of professors aged 49-67 plan to delay retirement past age 65 or never retire at all."
Never retire at all? Another study cited in the article, this one using National Science Foundation data, calculated that since the 1970s only 28 percent of higher education faculty had retired by age 65.
Think of this from an employer's point of view. In today's economy, is there any worse policy than guaranteeing an employee the same job for 40-plus years, even if he or she meets few of the organization's needs and costs a lot in the bargain?
That's what tenure ensures.
An assistant professor comes up for promotion at about age 35, and if the candidate qualifies, the school maintains him or her until the professor (or death) decides otherwise.
Granting tenure in 2010 commits the school to that employee until 2050 or beyond.
If a major was popular in the 1980s, and a school hired and tenured professors in response, the school keeps them regardless of how many majors the field has in 2010.
The college not only has no flexibility to shift the workforce when demand goes down — a professor of sociology can't shift to chemistry — but also has to pay a higher cost for the employee every year (because of ordinary salary adjustments, pension contributions and medical coverage).
Take the case of professors of French language.
According to the Modern Language Association, the discipline recorded 248,000 course enrollments in 1980 in accredited, not-for-profit institutions (including two-year schools).
In 1990, the number rose to 272,000, and in those heady years a certain number of faculty members hired to teach those courses won tenure.
Since then, enrollments have dipped more than 20 percent, averaging about 207,000 for the last 10 years. For German, the drop is worse: 133,000 in 1990 to 95,000 today.
Obviously, some of these professors aren't needed now. But ever since 1994, when mandatory retirement rules were ended, administrators can't make them leave.