Cornell is on the cusp of a massive wave of faculty retirements, and administrators are scrambling to make up the difference.
A hiring surge 30 years ago means that a group of faculty who came to Cornell around the same time is on its way out.
“It’s like a gazelle going through a python,” said Dean of Faculty Charles Walcott.
Administrators say that the trend reaches across academia, setting Cornell up for a high-stakes competition to lure the next generation of professors.
According to institutional planners, up to 600 faculty — about one third of the University’s total force — will reach retirement age within the next 5-10 years. The development office is hawking this statistic to solicit donations toward endowing chairs and renewing the faculty.
The huge number of faculty slated for retirement means the professors hired now — on average 73 tenure track professors per year over the past five years — will determine the very character of the University.
For Cornell, the $4 billion capital campaign announced in New York City at 8:30 a.m. today is an opportunity to play catch-up with peer institutions and become more competitive on everything from providing financial aid to hiring academia’s young stars.
“The problem is that [the mass retirement is] not unique to Cornell. There’s going to be enormous competition for the best faculty. We’re going to be competing with Harvard and Yale and Princeton and all those other places,” Walcott said.
Cornell currently ranks 12th in average faculty salary in a University Financial Report list that compares Cornell with peer institutions. Ten years ago, Cornell ranked 21st, sandwiched between Dartmouth and UCLA. Twenty years ago, Cornell ranked 17th in average faculty salary, but was in between Rutgers and the University of California, San Diego.
Harvard’s average salary is about $15,000 higher than the average salary at Cornell’s endowed colleges, which in turn, is about $15,000 more than the average salary at the contract colleges.
“I would like for us to gain ground and I think we will by virtue of the capital campaign,” said Provost Biddy Martin. “We have to get competitive, obviously, in the environment we’re in now. Our biggest challenge and our biggest opportunity over the next several years [is] to find the next generation of … Walter LaFebers and Peter Katzensteins,” she said.
Many faculty are approaching 60 years old and there has been a significant increase over the past 10 years in the number of faculty who are 70 and above.
Around the year 2000, faculty demographics reached a tipping point when the number of professors between 50 and 59 years old surpassed the number of professors in their forties.
Complicating the issue, the last year faculty were required to retire at 65 was 1993. Professors are healthier and remaining active longer than ever before — since 1996 there has been a 230 percent increase in the number of professors over the age of 70.
Cornell needs to begin hiring the next generation even as aging professors continue to use office and lab space, and occupy tenure tracks.
With so many factors at work, administrators are exploring all their options — including, Walcott said, the creation of a new classification of faculty between active and emeritus.
But hiring and recruitment decisions are made at the departmental level, making it impossible for University administrators to direct any grand hiring plan. Not every department is experiencing a similar retirement cycle; not every department is addressing the issue aggressively. Since it’s so wide, the way Cornell bridges the retirement gap could affect the University for the next 40 years.
“It’s going to take focus on the part of some departments and programs,” Martin said.
“This requires the kind of patience that allows people to wait until they’ve found the best possible faculty. That’s a balancing act and it’s not so easy.”
Martin said that aggressive searching and recruiting coupled with strong intellectual cultures within departments would help attract high-caliber academics. But, she said, departments need to be proactive.
“They need to not just wait for people to apply,” she said.
But Walcott said that the enduring activity of many older professors makes hiring new ones more difficult.
Walcott said that he was exploring creating a new classification of professor — a senior professor whose status would be between that of professor and emeritus. The professor would give up tenure, and teach or conduct research part-time. Senior professors would draw a small salary, which would be supplemented by their retirement savings.
“You don’t want to ride people like that out on a rail because they’re still contributing mightily to the welfare of the University,” Walcott said.
In becoming senior professors, older professors would free up money and relinquish tenure lines, making way for a new crop of talent.
But hiring new professors — which can include paying for research staff and hiring a spouse — is becoming ever more expensive, and the senior professors would still take up office and lab space.
“Where in hell would you put ’em?” Walcott said. “I don’t see an easy solution to that at all.”