A wave of retirements eases the way for a younger, more diverse faculty

Anna Parini

Computer scientist David Dobkin followed a customary path to the Princeton faculty: bachelor’s degree at MIT, Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Harvard (in three years), and stints at Yale and the University of Arizona before coming to Princeton in 1981 at age 33. He rose to lead the Department of Computer Science, and a decade ago became dean of the faculty, a job he once defined as essentially “looking out for the other members of the faculty.”

Once ensconced in Nassau Hall, Dobkin took on the task of looking out for those who might join the faculty, too. Princeton, like many colleges and universities across the country, faced a growing problem with its talent pipeline: Since mandatory retirement in academe was outlawed in 1994, more senior faculty have been hanging onto their jobs. “It’s a good job. People like being professors, so they stay at it,” says Dobkin. That means fewer openings for those potential stars fresh from Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs: Between 1994 and 2010, Princeton added 90 faculty positions while shedding 10 assistant-professor slots. (The faculty now numbers about 1,180, including approximately 400 visitors, lecturers, and instructors.) Dobkin, with the blessing of then-president Shirley Tilghman and after consulting with fellow faculty and University lawyers, devised a golden-handshake plan to convince more graying academics that it was, at last, time to go. 

He delayed unveiling it during the recession but in February 2010 came out with an offer to all faculty 65 and older: Sign your retirement papers now and get an immediate bonus of a year-and-a-half’s salary (the average full professor’s salary was then about $200,000 and is now $207,400), then teach half-time for up to three more years. Library, parking, and gym privileges were theirs for perpetuity. Some 120 professors were 65 or older and eligible to retire. Twenty-five already had signed retirement papers, and 35 of the rest — 37 percent — took Dobkin’s deal by the Aug. 31, 2010, deadline. For those 70 and older, this was a one-time offer. Thirty-five of those professors were eligible for the deal (13 already had signed retirement papers), and 17 accepted the handshake. 

A few professors retired before three years were up, but the biggest wave occurred this past June, when 26 of those longtime professors — and six others — became emeritus. That was more than double the typical number of retirements. Princeton now offers a bonus year-and-a-half’s pay to all professors if they agree at age 65 to phase into retirement, with lesser carrots up to age 69. 

Collectively these 32 taught longer than Methuselah lived — 1,011 years, to be exact. The median length of service was 30 years. They studied climate change, Jews in the medieval Islamic world, the religious lives of African-American slaves, nuclear safety and nonproliferation, the biochemistry of DNA, the magic of Vladimir Nabokov’s words, and a math puzzle that had defied solution for 350 years. 

They had been fixtures in campus classrooms for decades, and many were giants in their fields. The oldest was molecular biologist Jacques Fresco, 85, who joined the faculty in 1960. Peter Schäfer, 70, the world’s leading scholar on Jewish mysticism, has left after 15 years as the first Perelman professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Program in Judaic Studies. Woodrow Wilson School students lost to emeritus status nuclear-arms-control expert Frank von Hippel, 75, a physicist, MacArthur “genius” award-winner, and former chairman of the Federation of American Scientists and White House adviser. After 42 years, Robert Socolow, 75, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative and a prominent voice in debates over climate change, took the title of senior research scholar to forge ahead with projects while giving up teaching. Also gone at age 60 (too young for the incentive) was Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who solved Fermat’s last theorem during three decades at Princeton and now is back at Oxford University.

It’s commonly believed that creativity — and scientific creativity in particular — is the domain of the young. After all, Einstein was 26 when he developed his special theory of relativity, Darwin was 29 when he came up with his theory of natural selection, and James Watson was 25 when he and Francis Crick unraveled the structure of DNA. But in a 2011 review of the ages at which Nobel laureates in science made their critical breakthroughs, economists Benjamin F. Jones and Bruce A. Weinberg painted a different picture. Though the “iconic image of the young, great mind making critical breakthroughs” may have been true in physics in the 1920s and 1930s, when quantum mechanics was developing, today it is not, they wrote. The mean age at which laureates since 1980 made their achievements was 48, solidly middle-aged. Nevill F. Mott won the Nobel in physics in 1977 for work begun at age 60.

Dobkin says he knew beforehand that Princeton “would probably lose a few people that I didn’t want to lose, but that it was worth doing,” as others, less productive, were likely to accept the retirement offer. While aware that scholarly productivity and teaching ability did not always correlate with age, the dean was not afraid that the surge in retirements would leave gaps too difficult to fill. “We have a lot of experience here, and so we can afford this kind of change — especially if it means we can hire some new blood,” he says.

The graying of the professoriate is a problem at many campuses, small and large, public and private. In 2010, Harvard, which has 1,500 tenured and tenture-track faculty, induced more than a quarter of its over-65 professoriate to retire by giving them two years’ full pay for teaching halftime. Cornell extends full perks to faculty phasing into retirement, including paid college tuition for offspring.

At Princeton, openings created by faculty who accepted the incentive were earmarked for assistant professors, the junior tenure-track rank, and departments could make offers as soon as the retiring professors inked the papers. “You will see new faces on campus through the transformational effects of the plan,” Dobkin wrote after the deadline for the deal had passed. He was right. Since then, departments have gone on a bit of a hiring spree. The University announced the hiring of 88 new assistant professors between January 2011 and early October 2013, in addition to senior scholars. (Many of the openings and hires were not related to the retirement incentive.) 

Now the University is in the midst of regeneration, adding new faculty slots in growing fields and hiring scholars at the dawn of their careers. The average age of a faculty member has dropped a few months to 56.6. Some programs are swelling: The arts, neuroscience, engineering, and the environment all were priorities that the University emphasized in its successful $1.88 billion Aspire campaign, which created 26 endowed professorships. Open faculty positions posted on the University’s website in October listed spots for scholars in Irish letters, pre-modern Persian studies, linguistics, sociology, international studies, and several in energy and the environment.

Many new professors do work that crosses disciplines; some have joint appointments. Forrest Meggers, who had been an associate research scholar specializing in sustainable design, was appointed an assistant professor in both the architecture school and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Biologist Charlotte Metcalf uses statistical tools to explore how evolutionary and ecological processes shape patterns of traits in natural systems, including human diseases, and considers options for vaccine control. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she has a joint appointment in ecology and evolutionary biology and the Woodrow Wilson School. 

Most of these newcomers are brushing up against or not long past 30th birthdays, fresh from doctorates and fellowships. “This is an opportunity to bring about change,” says Dobkin. “You’d like to be able to create some churn to get new ideas mixed in with the old ideas. That makes for a better community.” 

Announcing the program almost four years ago, Dobkin made clear that the purpose was not budget-related, but “faculty renewal” — opening up spots for scholars at the beginning of their careers who later would be crucial to the success of Princeton and other universities. Nor did he suggest that the change would help Princeton to diversify its faculty ranks. In the intervening years, however, the issue of faculty diversity has climbed toward the top of Princeton’s agenda because most professors are, like Dobkin, white men. 

In September, with the paint barely dry in his new office, President Eisgruber ’83 supported the recommendations of the Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity. Despite progress made over the past half-century to transform Princeton from an institution for white males “into one that welcomes people of every race, creed, nationality, and walk of life,” there is still far to go, the panel said. “[S]imply put, Princeton and its peers do not come close to looking like America today ... ,” the panel reported. “Princeton’s very legitimacy, like that of the future leaders it is educating, demands that its campus be broadly representative of the nation as a whole.” 

All but one of those who retired at the end of the last academic year are white, and 28 are men. Among the four newly retired women is former Woodrow Wilson School dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, 55. She left to lead the New America Foundation. The sole African-American among the 32 professors who departed is Albert Raboteau, 70, a scholar of religious history, who taught at Princeton for 30 years; former Princeton professor Cornel West *80 has called him “the godfather of us all.” 

The vacancies presented opportunities to recruit a faculty more representative of the country and of Princeton’s diverse undergraduate student body. Among the 588 tenured faculty, there are 132 women (22 percent) and 94 minorities (16 percent). Women are outnumbered among full professors four-to-one. The statistics, from December 2012, look better at the junior level, where 38 percent of assistant professors are female. Minority faculty — African-American, Asian, Hispanic, or multiracial — make up 15 percent of full professors and 19 percent of assistant professors. 

Change is coming, but it’s not likely to come quickly. Sixty-three of the 88 assistant professors whose hires were announced since the retirement incentive took effect — almost three-quarters — are men. (Figures on minority professors among the new hires were not available.)

Dorothea Fiedler, chemistry
Dorothea Fiedler, chemistry
Sameer A. Khan
Ilana Witten ’02, psychology and neuroscience
Ilana Witten ’02, psychology and neuroscience
Sameer A. Khan

In some ways, Dorothea Fiedler and Ilana Witten ’02 are the faces of Princeton’s future. Fiedler, an assistant professor of chemistry with an interdisciplinary bent — she works at the interface of chemistry and biology — who has been at the University for three years, is a woman in a department long dominated by men. She was born in Germany, but came to the United States for graduate work. Witten, too, is a scientist — since 2012, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience researching the neural circuits that affect memory systems and motivate behavior. The work ultimately could lead to better ways to treat drug addiction. (Witten is the daughter of physicists Chiara Nappi, a new emerita, and Edward Witten *76, of the Institute for Advanced Study. Her grandfather, too, was a physicist. Deciding “there were enough physicists in the family,” she turned to neuroscience.) Each woman is a rising star who has won the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. Each also is a mother of two, with a 3-year-old and a baby, and appreciative of recent University efforts to make faculty jobs more family-friendly, particularly for junior professors. 

The two scientists support efforts to make the faculty more diverse, even if they are aware of how difficult it can be to move the needle. Fiedler, in particular, points to one of the problems identified by the trustees’ report: Graduate schools, and especially the few from which Princeton draws most of its faculty, also lack gender and ethnic diversity. Though Princeton searches the world over for even junior faculty, it often winds up hiring from the same places. Forty-nine percent of the faculty in 2011–12 had a doctorate from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, or Princeton (Fiedler’s is from Berkeley, Witten’s from Stanford). Fiedler is happy to serve as a role model for young women, and keeps diversity in mind when sifting through graduate-school applications with other professors, knowing that today’s Ph.D.s are tomorrow’s faculty colleagues. Nonetheless, seven of the eight Ph.D. students she has brought on board since setting up her lab in Frick three years ago have been men; the three postdocs she has hired are women. “I do try to keep the group as diverse as possible, but research interests of incoming graduate students vary, and there’s only so much we can do,” she says.

David Lee *96 *99, Princeton’s new provost and the first Asian-American in the job, says the University “is all about recruiting the absolute best talent in the world,” but also is working to expand and diversify the talent pool. How to do it? The trustee report suggests that departments be “tenacious” in tracking and building relationships with promising young scholars and taking fuller advantage of programs already set up at Princeton to support recruitment of scholars of all backgrounds. Lee, a labor economist, says diversity is a factor in every job search, but it is left up to each department to find the best way to achieve it. 

Molecular biology professor Virginia Zakian, who has served on a University committee that provides special funds to recruit faculty who “bring intellectual and demographic diversity to Princeton,” points to a recent study from Yale that found men and women professors alike at research universities are more likely to hire male candidates and pay them more than women with the same credentials. Her own department has been singled out for its progress in diversifying its graduate-student body. “It turns out it’s not that hard to get terrific minority graduate students,” she says. One strategy: Princeton just had to look for them in the senior classes at campuses such as Penn State, Rutgers, and Temple, and not only in elite institutions.

“Clearly, our faculty are not reflecting the student body,” says Vincent Poor *77, dean of Princeton’s engineering school, where 40 percent of undergraduate engineering majors are women. Like others, he says that the solution in the long run is to “enrich the pool” in graduate schools. This year Princeton’s engineering school hired three women, made offers to others, and hired a Hispanic faculty member, he says. 

The 22-member sociology department, which has seven women and seven minority faculty, became more than 2-to-1 male with recent losses of newly tenured professors Devah Pager, an expert on criminal justice, to Harvard, and Delia Baldassarri, who studies political polarization, to New York University. “We are way below where we should be,” acknowledges department chair Miguel Centeno, but “we’re moving on that front.” Two female assistant professors are among the new hires.

Even while welcoming young colleagues on board, many mourn the departure of professors who have helped to build departments considered among the best in the world. Princeton’s famed mathematics department lost five giants to retirement over the last two years — most recently, John Conway, 75 (26 years at Princeton); Edward Nelson, 81 (54 years); and Andrew Wiles. The retirements followed the deaths of two other longtime professors. Now the department has a new batch of young scholars: five assistant professors and two senior professors have joined within the last two years, along with several instructors and postdocs. “This is the center of gravity,” says new assistant professor Adam Levine, who is thrilled to be working alongside professors Zoltán Szabó and Peter Ozsváth, the “big dogs” in his field, topology and knot theory. “Princeton was pretty much a slam dunk, an offer that was hard to refuse.” 

Over at the Near Eastern studies department — once the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures and renowned for scholarship on both biblical times and the modern era — three professors retired in June: Mark R. Cohen, 70, after 37 years at Princeton; András Hamori ’61, 72, after 46 years; and Heath Lowry, 70, after 20 years. New to the faculty is French-Tunisian historian M’hamed Oualdi, a scholar of early and modern North Africa. The department is searching for an assistant professor to focus on contemporary Israel and a scholar of Jews and Christians of the pre-modern Muslim world. 

In religion, department chair Leora Batnitzky calls Peter Schäfer’s June retirement “a huge loss,” but notes that the department hired a dynamic young Talmudic scholar, Moulie Vidas, in 2012 to help fill those shoes alongside such prominent senior faculty in early Judaism and Christianity as Martha Himmelfarb, AnneMarie Luijendijk, and Elaine Pagels. Anticipating the eventual retirement of Albert Raboteau, the religion department made two hires in the field of African-American religious history in 2007: Judith Weisenfeld *90 *92 and Wallace Best.

East Asian studies lost Martin Collcutt, 73, a Japan scholar, and Susan Naquin, 69, a late-imperial China historian, a year after the death of Japanese literature professor Richard Okada and the retirement of Seiichi Makino. The department has replaced Collcutt and Okada “in exactly their fields and, together with the history department, we are currently running a search to replace Sue Naquin,” says Martin Kern, the chair. It also is searching to fill two positions — one brand new — in contemporary Chinese and Japanese literature, film, and culture studies. The goal is “to remain a powerhouse on pre-modern East Asia while expanding ... into the modern and the contemporary” and building up Korean studies, says Kern.

Newly retired is neuroscientist and psychologist Charles Gross, 77, whose studies of primate visual systems “revolutionized our understanding of sensory perception and pattern recognition,” colleagues said in a tribute. But following in his path is assistant professor Tim Buschman, a new arrival in psychology and neuroscience. He regards Gross as “sort of both my scientific grandfather and great-grandfather,” since Gross trained Buschman’s adviser at MIT and that adviser’s mentor. Buschman’s work on cognitive control of attention and working memory is “the evolution or natural extension of what Charley did.” The young professor was a hot commodity after postdoctoral work at MIT and applied for a half-dozen jobs, “but I can honestly say that Princeton was at the top of my list because of the amazing group of neuroscientists who are here,” he says. “I feel really spoiled.” 

The Department of French and Italian, which lost Marie-Hélène Huet and François Rigolot, 74, to retirement, brought on board assistant professor Katie Chenoweth, whom chair Nick Nesbitt calls “a brilliant, young Renaissance scholar.” Emblematic of the difficulties new Ph.D.s face, especially in the humanities, Princeton and Penn were the only universities in the country searching for a Renaissance scholar this year, she says.

Can the 32-year-old Chenoweth, who writes about the 16th-century rise of the French vernacular, envision herself emerita one day? “You move here and do your best to make it that way,” she says. “I’m still figuring things out, but, yes, I would love to have 40 years at Princeton.”

And so Princeton keeps regenerating, looking in old places and new for rising stars and trying to expand the talent pool so that it better reflects the country and the student body. Retirement incentives remain in effect for those between 65 and 70. In that group is David Dobkin himself, who turned 65 last February.

He envisions a return to the computer-science department “for a stretch” after leaving the deanship, with retirement to follow. “It would be disingenuous for me to stay until I’m far into my 70s,” he says, “after having had numerous conversations with people about why they should retire at a younger age.” 

Christopher Connell ’71 is an education writer in Alexandria, Va.