27th 2010
Emeritus status: who cares?

Posted under: American history, jobs, unhappy endings

Is being named an Emerita or Emeritus Professor really all that important?  As many of you may have heard, last week the University of Illinois denied Emeritus status to retired Education Professor William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, because he dedicated a book he published in 1974, Prairie Fire, to 200 people, among whom was Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.  Kennedy’s son Christopher Kennedy is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, which made the denial of Emeritus status seem quite personal.  Inside Higher Ed has a good story explaining  the Ayers denial of Emeritus status and different views on it today.

I suppose it’s just bad luck for Ayers that Christopher Kennedy happens to Chair the Board of Trustees, but I don’t see a lot to get excited over here.  I can understand why Kennedy fils would vote against honoring Ayers.  Ayers had a long and productive career as a political provocateur and then as a professor.  The University of Illinois saw fit to tenure and promote him regardless of his personal history, so I can see arguments that it’s petty to withhold Emeritus status from him.  But, I don’t think Emerita or Emeritus status really matters all that much.  By the time people are retiring, they’ve established their reputations.  They will either continue to be productive and relevant scholars, or not, regardless of whether or not they retire with an honorific title.  I’d be interested in hearing from you on your views on this, especially if you think Emerita or Emeritus is a big deal.

But, it seems like a former member of the Weather Underground might relish this refusal to grant him this one honor.  Ayers has lived his life in a long flirtation between infamy and respectability–it seems like he might wear this decision rather as a badge of honor.


14 Responses to “Emeritus status: who cares?”

  1. LadyProf on 27 Sep 2010 at 10:57 am #

    This one probably falls under the heading of academic tempest in a teapot, with not much at stake, but I am disturbed that Christopher Kennedy didn’t recuse himself from the emeritus-or-not decision. Presumably his feelings about Ayers are well known to his colleagues. Another trustee could have made the denial proposal, on which Kennedy should not have spoken or voted.

  2. Tom on 27 Sep 2010 at 10:57 am #

    Emeritus/Emerita status may not be an especially “big deal” but it serves to allow both universities and scholars to benefit from (and continue) their mutual association after retirement. Ideally, it benefits both parties, and it acknowledges that professorial work involves a relationship more complex than many employer/employee relationships. To have it denied would be like having your university say “goodbye” but not “thanks.” I would wish to be thanked when I retired, especially if my employer makes service a component of my job, or anticipates that I might wish to make a contribution (financial or otherwise) to it.

  3. Matt L on 27 Sep 2010 at 11:11 am #

    In some places I think Emeritus/Emerita status entitles you to a few useful perks: use of the photocopier, mailbox, Uni letterhead, an office on campus (or a carrel in the library), library privileges, etc. Being denied photocopier access might be an inconvenience, but getting barred from the library would be a drag.

    I like Tom’s notion: this is the difference between good bye with a thank you and don’t let the door hit your A$$ on the way out.

    Historiann, you are right: Denial of emeritus status for Ayers would suggest that this is based on personal animus, rather than a reflection on his years of service with UI. Or maybe it is the latter. Maybe he was a $h!tty colleague and we never heard about it?

  4. Historiann on 27 Sep 2010 at 11:36 am #

    I think it’s a reasonable personal animus in Kennedy’s case. If someone had written a book dedicated to my father’s assassin, I’d be inclined to vote against him any chance I got and in whatever forum. Presumably, Kennedy’s vote was insufficient in and of itself–his arguments convinced others on the board to vote against Ayers’s Emeritus status.

    I don’t know anything about Ayers’ intellectual work, teaching, or his behavior as a colleague. Maybe there are a number of people at UIC who are pleased to see this relatively mild comeuppance. Maybe there aren’t. But I’ll just say that having a youth as a revolutionary has its price, and being denied Emeritus status is a pretty puny one to pay.

  5. undine on 27 Sep 2010 at 11:38 am #

    The library and other perks that Matt L mentions would be nice, as would the “thank you” that emeritus/a status confers.

    How unusual is it for people to be denied emeritus/a status, anyway? I’m thinking that it’s probably fairly unusual and statistically unlikely, even if the person wasn’t a great colleague, as Matt L suggests. That would make the absence of the status sting a lot more, although Ayers is doubtless rich enough to afford his own photocopying.

  6. Tim Lacy on 27 Sep 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    As with Matt L above, there are some practical considerations that would benefit Ayers. But he could probably arrange for some of those perks without emeritus status. The denial is simply political and personal.

    What’s funny about this decision is that it harms UIC financially. Why? Because one of the “perks” of being emeritus is getting paid less to teach the same kinds of courses. And with Ayers bad-boy persona, he was an attractive teacher for students (i.e. the novelty factor). So now UIC will have to find someone less distinguished, scholarship-wise, to teach Ayers’s courses—someone who won’t keep the same number of butts in the seats.

    As a former UIC employee, I can say with some authority that it’s perfectly in line with UIC’s administrative ineptitude to make a symbolic statement while also shooting themselves in the foot.

    Anyway, Historiann, I agree with your very last lines: this is something Ayers can relish, as well as use to sell his next book. He gets to retain a bad-boy image despite the fact that he’s pretty much been reformed by his own work. I’m serious about this. He works on nuts-and-bolts education issues. He’s a fine professional in his specialty. – TL

  7. koshem Bos on 27 Sep 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    They may deny me emeritus when time, not far away, comes. I have no intention to continue in the same path; retirement is an opportunity to start new directions. There is only so much you can accomplish when you try to be a scholar and raise kids.

    Those who, directly or indirectly, support killing should not be members of any decent community. You have to be at a real low to support murder. Ayers was and never apologized. Why accord him the honor?

  8. Knitting Clio on 27 Sep 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Our department refused to recommend emeritus status to a guy who was notorious for hitting on young female students and did nothing but teach his classes the last ten years he was here (and he did that poorly ). This was mainly symbolic — I don’t even think emeritus here can even use the photocopier — but it sent a message.

  9. Historiann on 27 Sep 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    KC–that’s interesting. I played a role in supporting the application of a former colleague (at another uni than my current one) for Emeritus status. I don’t know what my current department does–whether people have to apply for the status, whether the department has to support it (or not), and whether or not it’s even available.

    But, it seems like my former colleagues have their e-mail addresses and library cards. Many of them are quite active–they stop by when they’re carrying a load of books to or from the library. It seems like the uni gets more than the value of their library cards and e-mail accounts, having such active citizens around.

    Thanks to Tim Lacy for the insider perspective. And koshem Bos: I would agree with you, except that Illinois clearly found it expedient to look the other way while they hired, promoted, and permitted him to rise through the ranks. (I’ll take Tim’s word that Ayers was rehabilitated through his work–I don’t know anything about his scholarship.) If Illinois was really bothered by Ayers’s criminal past, they wouldn’t have hired or tenured him in the first place.

  10. Indyanna on 27 Sep 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    Coming from a somewhat younger segment of the same generational cohort, I’ve got to imagine what Ayers himself might have said, prospectively, back in ’68, between whifs of tear gas and/or what used to be ritualistically called the “sickly sweet smell of marijuana smoke…”: viz., emeritus, schmeritus… It pretty much ranks somewhere between a mosquito bite and another book contract. I feel more for my friend’s kid sister, back in the day, who in a fit of pique and disestablishmentarian honor, turned down National Merit Scholar and a few other ceremonial meritocratic designations. And presumably paid a tiny competitive price for it on a hundred or more occasions since, although she did all right by almost any measure.

  11. Susan on 27 Sep 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    I was going to say that the email and library stuff is not trivial, especially as library access gives access to all the databases and online journals, which are prohibitive to the individual….

    Ayers seems to have decided never to apologize for what he did in the late 60s/early 70s. I can see his point, but some perspective from the present would surely be worthwhile…

  12. Janice on 28 Sep 2010 at 9:20 am #

    At my university, if you retire at the rank of full professor, you’re automatically given the emeritus rank. If you retire at a lower rank, you have to apply for that and there’s input given from your department and faculty as well as having to be approved by the Senate and BoG.

    As Tom noted, the rank confers privileges which varies from institution to institution. Here it includes on-campus office space and access to what exists of office support and supplies.

  13. Historiann on 28 Sep 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    Janice, it’s a big perk to get office space. We can barely provide offices for our full-time faculty. (All TT people have their own offices, but unfortunately, some of our adjuncts have to bunk in with someone else. But AFAIK, any adjuncts teaching 4 classes a term get their own offices–it’s just those teaching one or two classes who must share.)

    Your comment about “what exists of office support” reminds me of my days at Penn 20 years ago. Many of the office staff were understood to be typists/word processors for a few very senior male proffies, who never learned to use computers or to type. It was an accomodation for entitled, clueless dudes. I wonder if that happens any more, or if most people 65 and under learned to use computers and do their own typing along the way?

  14. LadyProf on 29 Sep 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    I wonder if that happens any more, or if most people 65 and under learned to use computers and do their own typing along the way?

    I can speak only about law schools, where this catering to the oldsters is on the wane but still exists. Especially in richer institutions.

    And among supervisors of support staff it is a truth universally acknowledged that office staffers should rank elderly white fellows ahead of all other faculty members, and pay attention to younger or more female people only as time permits. “You’re the self-sufficient generation,” they say when denying requests for help. They think it’s cute–and a drop-everything action item for them–whenever an old guy can’t find the big green button on the copying machine.

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