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The Untapped Treasure of Faculty Emeriti

Posted on Thursday April 12, 2012 by Michael Keathley

As this recent discussion board on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website attests, defining exactly what faculty emeriti are, how they attain such a status, and what their roles within the university may be varies by institution. By definition, ‘emeritus’ refers to someone who has completed their duties well and received an honorable discharge; therefore, faculty emeriti are often those professors who have served a university well over a period of time, typically at least a decade, and who have achieved the level of full professor by the time they retire. Their emeritus status is typically approved by the entire administrative hierarchy at the time of retirement. Often faculty emeriti retain a school email address with all the privileges that come with a faculty ID card (e.g., library access, discounts to events, etc.).

There is a variance on what else this title entails. Office space (though usually for a short duration) and a prime parking space are often provided. Some faculty emeriti attend faculty meetings in an advisor capacity, with no real vote or chance to serve on committees; they may get the first pick to teach a few preferred courses each year; or they may retain the ability to conduct research at the institution by using any needed facilities and obtaining grant money.

Clearly there is need to define the role of faculty emeriti better and to engage these dedicated professionals who have served education well throughout their lives and careers in ways that will benefit them and the academic community. There are at least four main areas that faculty emeriti could make a significant contribution within the academic community while enjoying the semi-retired status they have so rightly earned.

Think Tank
In a previous post, “Don’t Miss the Obvious in Higher Ed Discussions” (24 January, 2012), I wrote about the need to include faculty in all venues where higher education issues and reform are discussed. Faculty form a talented and ready group of creative, intelligent knowledgeable individuals who could form an instant think tank, especially with the synergy of their respective fields coming together. Faculty are also the eyes and ears of the administration because instructors are on the front lines on a near daily basis with students; faculty have a much better idea of what students need and want than someone in an administrative position or a political office. Faculty could also form a mobilized lobby group to market ideas that help academia progress as times change. Instructors typically have the personality to speak and represent their profession and institutions well.

Now consider this same faculty group as emeriti who would bring decades of successful experience in education, thoughtful reflection on best practices, and time unencumbered by the need to prepare for classes, grade papers, and perform other duties of an active instructor. Faculty emeriti would also have more time to devote to research on issues of concern.

Another area of need where faculty emeriti could easily step in is mentoring of new faculty. Chances are good that these experienced professors fit the descriptors discussed in my post: “Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Teacher of Teachers?” (13 March, 2012). Certainly faculty emeriti have had time to reflect upon best practices in teaching; they have also experienced various pedagogical trends that have come and perhaps gone. They have most likely thought about the big picture as well as the small details in education, and they’ve probably experienced the highs and lows of the profession. The faculty emeriti have at times spoken up about education and held leadership positions in some capacity. Therefore, who better to mentor new faculty who have yet to experience the vicissitudes of a teaching career than those who have been there and done that successfully?

Professional Development
Meaningful, documentable professional development is a chief concern of educators and institutions. Associate professor of zoology at Rutgers University, Lion F. Gardner provided this list of questions to ask in order to make professional development meaningful for faculty:

1. What are the specific intended competency outcomes we have defined for our students in each curriculum? Have these outcomes been articulated as effective written goals and objectives that provide a useful foundation for program design, implementation, and assessment? Are we actively using these statements of intended results to manage learning in every program?

2. What educational processes does current higher education research suggest can best develop these outcomes with our students?

3. What specific professional knowledge and skill competencies do the faculty and staff require to implement these educational processes effectively and efficiently?

4. Does each educator now have these competencies as appropriate to his or her role? Specifically, how do we know?

5. What types of activities are best suited for developing these professional competencies with our particular people?

6. Does our faculty development program now have the capacity—the professional staff with appropriate knowledge and skills—to cultivate these competencies? If not, specifically how should it be changed so it can meet our needs at a high level of quality?

7. How do we know if this professional development program is effective: that staff competencies are being developed and that our people are thoroughly prepared for working with our students?

8. Are participants in the faculty development program using their new knowledge and skills effectively in their teaching and advising?

9. To what extent are actual student (or other) outcomes affected by the program? Specifically, how do we know? Are these effects of high quality?

10. How should the program be modified such that its actual outcomes—its results—more closely approach its intended outcomes? (National Academy for Academic Leadership, 2000)

In addition to their own depth of experience, faculty emeriti will have the time to research and present information to other faculty as well as to provide follow-up opportunities for those who are interested.

Finally, it’s important not to forget that students could benefit from contact with faculty emeriti. In my post, “Faculty or Advisor?” (23 March, 2012), I described the growing trend of postsecondary institutions delegating advising to faculty and how this puts yet another responsibility on already overburdened instructors. I suggested that while faculty are an excellent resource for students to receive advice on academics and careers related to a specific field of study, it takes special training to advise in accordance with the National Academic Advising Association’s (NACADA) three recommendations of curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning outcomes. My prior suggestion that adjunct faculty could be more greatly engaged in the academic community by receiving this training could also be applied to faculty emeriti. And again, who better to offer this service to students than someone with the depth of experience a retired professor who has worked successfully in the field for decades?

Faculty emeriti are a largely untapped treasure at most institutions. Clearly, if these veterans of academia seek out a way to retire while remaining somehow engaged in their institution’s community, chances are good they would welcome some of the above options and their universities would be the beneficiaries. It’s time to maximize the untapped potential of our treasured faculty emeriti.

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