UWHO? Who Replaced All Those ‘Retired’ University Professors?


This was supposed to be a time of major renewal in Canadian universities.  In the 1990s, when I was doing graduate work in Education, it was widely anticipated that a large number of university professors, across the academic disciplines, would be retiring in the upcoming years and that they would have to be replaced.  If a large number of professors were to be replaced, it seemed to follow, at least to me when I beginning my graduate studies, that this would open the door for some much-needed, significant, reform in our universities.  Get some new people in there like me, who recognized a need for change, and change would come.  It hasn’t happened that way.  None of it.

First, many of the university professors who were expected to retire simply didn’t retire.  In 2006, several Canadian provinces that formerly required that university professors retire at the age of 65 banned mandatory retirement.  I haven’t been able to find any recent figures (I admit I haven’t looked very hard), but some information about how many professors had opted to extend their careers a few years after the ban is available in the 2009 article in the Canadian academic magazine, University Affairs: “Faculty postpone retirement across Canada.”  It is noted in this article that, although country-wide figures were unavailable, “every university contacted for this article is experiencing the phenomenon of delayed retirements.”  One of the universities that was contacted and for which some data is provided in the article is the University of British Columbia–in Vancouver, where I now live.  According to the article, at that time at UBC, 80 percent of the professors who were still working at age 65 had elected to stay on.  The article goes on to explain that the 80 percent was offset to some extent by early retirements; but, still, that’s a huge percentage.  

It would be extremely interesting to know how long those who had opted to stay on had indeed stayed on, or planned to do so; but, in my rudimentary on-line search, I could find no such information.  Due to the various benefits, including health and dental benefits, in addition to the relatively high pay included in faculty compensation packages at Canadian universities, and due to the relatively undemanding physical nature of academic work (intellectual demands, or lack of demands, are a whole other ball of wax, that I won’t get into here), I suspect that, in a great many cases, these professors have stayed on more than just a couple of years–and may stay on for several more.

The delayed retirements have stalled new hiring in two ways.  First, there is the obvious: assuming the number of Canadian university students has remained relatively constant, which seems to have been the case, fewer new professors are required if more professors are extending their careers.  Also, as is discussed at some length in the above-mentioned article, the older professors who have extended their careers have tended to already be at, or near, the top of the academic pay scale when they chose to stay on, which has increased expenses for universities.  Thus, there is now less money than before to hire new recruits, even when the relatively few retirements create a need for replacement faculty–or if and when a need is recognized for new people to fill new faculty roles that previously didn’t exist.

That’s a big IF: IF there is a recognition of a need for new people to fill new faculty roles that previously didn’t exist.  In the natural and applied sciences, universities seem to be relatively diligent and adept at recruiting new people who are experts in new areas of knowledge.  Funding in these areas, and the recruitment of top students, is largely dependent on keeping up-to-date.  In the humanities and social sciences, including, broadly speaking, faculties of Education, the pressures aren’t as great to keep up.

What I discovered in my experience as a graduate student in Education was how, and to what degree, a future career as a professor in this area is dependent upon alliances one forms with existing university professors.  I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this factor until the final phase of my PhD program, after all my coursework was completed. This factor has become especially important in these times of minimal new hiring.

Graduate students can get all A’s in their courses, and even have a few interesting papers published as a sole author, but finding a strong mentor among existing professors, who can help them get their names on a lot of publications and meet the right people, also is essential.  Unless they are exceptionally lucky with the professors they encounter as students (I don’t discount the possibility of some professors being unusually forward-thinking), the people with the new ideas stand a very good chance of coming up short in this area.  Others, who are especially conservative themselves, or especially wily, or both, are likely to have the greatest success. 

Based on the views of most Canadians today about our universities and where they should be heading, I would suggest it is often the wrong people, whose views most closely resemble those of the professors who came before them, and/or who just know how to play the game, who are getting those few academic teaching jobs that have become available in recent years.

If major reform is to come to our universities, it seems extremely unlikely that it will come from within the professorial ranks.


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