Over the next 10 years, 50 percent of Cornell’s faculty will retire. In the next decade, this unprecedented rate of retirement will be a challenge to the University and a tremendous opportunity for Cornell to redefine itself. The University has anticipated this wave of retirements and has raised $100 million for a faculty renewal fund, providing the resources to hire new faculty before the existing faculty retire. This policy is an innovative solution and helps to dampen the blow of the wave of retirements. However, with this wave of hiring there is a danger that the cycle will repeat itself when the faculty hired in the next decade go on to retire. The University should work to break the cycle by hiring faculty with greater variation in age, and consistently hiring new faculty at a steady pace beyond the next 10 years.
This wave of retirements is largely due to aggressive hiring in the mid 1980s, when Cornell recruited approximately 100 new faculty per year. Hiring slowed down in the 1990s, with the University hiring only about 50 faculty per year. Now, as the faculty hired in the 1980s begin to retire, the turnover rate of faculty is speeding up substantially. This high turnover rate will place a large burden on the University. In addition to the $100 million that will go toward taking on extra faculty in the face of these retirements, there is the added challenge of finding truly outstanding faculty in the current labor market. Cornell is not the only university facing similar demographic challenges, and while Cornell has been able to hire to top faculty in the past, it may be forced to reach deeper into the market. Though the $100 million fund seeks to mitigate this concern, there will still undoubtedly be challenges.
Many factors that contribute to these waves are out of the University’s control. For instance, faculty saw their 401(k)s plummet during the 2008 financial crisis, and many put off retirement as they waited for the economy to recover. However, there are still measures that the University can take to reduce the problems that accompany retirement waves. Though they may be expensive in the short term, the University should strive to implement these options; the costs that the retirement waves bring in the future may be larger than working to prevent these waves in the first place.
First, the University should look to hire faculty at varying stages of their careers. Though there are benefits to hiring young professors, including the fact that many of these young hires are trained in emerging fields and are hired with lower average salaries, hiring exclusively young assistant professors will lead Cornell to the same wave of retirements further down the line and the same challenges that it is facing now. Secondly, the University should put a focus on expanding the hiring period beyond the next decade and smoothing out the rate of faculty hiring. This may be challenging, as the University must fill positions while also managing the costs that come with hiring too many faculty. There is no easy way answer to this dilemma, but it is clear that this faculty retirement wave brings serious costs that the University should strive to avoid.
This new wave of hires will reshape Cornell in a dramatic way, and presents a way to adapt to emerging fields and currents of thought. Though these possibilities to mitigate the waves of hiring face substantial financial barriers, it is important that the University does its best to smooth out the hiring booms and busts, as these cycles will bring substantial costs in the future.