Higher education leaders tasked with determining whether to reopen campuses in fall 2020 or spring 2021 face a myriad of challenges. With dramatic budget reductions, decreased tuition revenues, reduced state support, and declining enrollment, a shock wave of staff layoffs and furloughs has ensued. Decisions are being made about closing academic programs and departments and potentially even terminating tenured faculty. For example, Ohio University announced three successive rounds of budget cuts that resulted in the layoff of 53 non-tenure-track positions and elimination of 94 administrator positions, 140 unionized positions in dining and maintenance, and 81 other classified and administrative positions. In another example, the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted to reduce or eliminate more than 40 academic programs, including undergraduate majors in sociology, chemistry and earth science as well as graduate programs in English, biochemistry, and management information systems.
As the coronavirus-induced crisis deepens, the question arises as to the role ageism will play in employment decisions relating to the administrative, faculty, and staff workforce and in the kinds of measures campuses will implement to facilitate partial or full reopening. A Los Angeles Times article (Newberry, 2020) warns in its headline, “The pandemic has amplified ageism. ‘It’s open season for discrimination’ against older adults.”
Surprisingly, a number of statements issued by prominent university presidents appear to ignore the concerns of faculty and the risks they may encounter as campuses reopen as well as the potential for transmission of COVID-19 in multiple college settings. These announcements fail to consider the fact that half of faculty are over 35, and 17 percent are older than 65 (Finkelstein et al., 2016). The age profile of staff is similar, with the average age being 45. And according to federal data, the number of adult learners has increased, with 7.4 million over age 25 now enrolled in college
Furthermore, the effects of ageism are not limited to older adults but involve both ends of the age spectrum. Although the coronavirus does pose greater risks for older individuals, it also affects younger persons and individuals of all ages with serious underlying medical conditions. A March 16, 2020, analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 38 percent of hospitalizations were for individuals between ages 20 and 54. with half of those in intensive care being younger than 65 (Maragakis, 2020). In addition, a recent article by eight psychologists warns against the use of arbitrary age cutoffs and points out the negative effects of stress and loneliness on younger individuals (Ayalon et al., 2020). Importantly, the researchers emphasize the need for intergenerational solidarity rather than intergenerational division, especially when resources are scarce.
With these pressing concerns in mind, how can campus leadership capitalize on intergenerational synergy? How can policy decisions and public statements reinforce the need for intergenerational solidarity and avoid ageism in employment and downsizing processes?
In our forthcoming book, Leveraging Multigenerational Workforce Strategies in Higher Education, we draw from in-depth interviews and research findings to argue that intergenerational capabilities are a competitive force that differentiates institutional performance, enhances creativity, and promotes knowledge transfer and problem-solving. Takea study of 18,000 firms in Germany, which found that a 10 percent increase in age diversity resulted in a 3.5 percent annual increase in productivity, as measured in sales, due to diverse problem-solving capabilities. These capabilities arose from different knowledge pools and the transfer of know-how and norms from older to younger cohorts (Backes-Gellner et al., 2011). Similarly, on the academic side, consider the advantages of multigenerational collaboration shared by Chris Keys, a retired psychology professor from DePaul University: “If you have a critical mass of good people at each level, and . . . they appreciate each other and their contributions, then you really have the ingredients of a positive, multigenerational department.”
We also document the ways that ageist framing in the academic workplace can have long-term effects on faculty, administrators and staff at both ends of the age spectrum. Administrators, staff, and even tenured faculty can experience pressure to retire or retire early. Younger tenure-stream faculty too can face significant hurdles in the promotion and tenure process based on normative views of career progression. Administrators and contingent faculty have few due process protections and can be subject to ageist framing in employment processes. A central finding of our study is that ageist pressures are magnified and intensified due to the intersectionality of race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
Consider, for example, the ordeal faced by Susan, a white female tenured professor, who endured the overt discriminatory actions of her white male chair designed to force her to retire. He loaded her schedule with undergraduate required courses and excluded her from the graduate course rotation for five years. He then accused her of refusing to work with graduate students. To try to catch her making any inadvertent remarks to students that he could use against her, the chair embarked on a surveillance campaign by pacing in front of her office during office hours:
He would pace in the hall and listen to everything I said to the students. So I was under constant visual and audio surveillance by him every time I had office hours. . . . He had a lot of hours to pace in the hall in front of my office and try to catch me doing something illegal, which he never did. . . . I had to experience that for a long time, the constant pacing in front of my office. It was incredibly stressful.
It was only when Susan began the process of filing a formal complaint of ageism and the chair left the department that the harassment stopped. As Susan concludes, “A lot of it was ageism, He wanted to have the only authority and he didn’t want to have any counter forces. He didn’t want to have different perspectives.”
Given the potential for increased ageism in institutional processes driven by resource scarcity, we offer for consideration several leadership strategies that will help build workforce synergy and ensure intergenerational collaboration:
With the difficult process ahead of determining when to reopen and how to address significant budgetary shortfalls, it has become even more important for institutions of higher education to evaluate the impact of decisions on different generational cohorts. The vitality, creativity, knowledge, and know-how of a multigenerational workforce are critical assets that will help institutions cope with the COVID-19 crisis and sustain their academic mission of student learning and success.
Ayalon, L., Chasteen, A., Diehl, M., Levy, B. R., Neupert, S. D., Rothermund, K., Tesch-Römer, C., & Wahl, H.-W. (2020). Aging in times of the COVID-19 pandemic: Avoiding ageism and fostering intergenerational solidarity. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa051
Backes-Gellner, U., Schneider, M. R., & Veen, S. (2011). Effect of workforce age on quantitative and qualitative organizational performance: Conceptual framework and case study evidence. Organization Studies, 32(8), 1103–1121. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840611416746
Finkelstein, M. J., Conley, V. M., & Schuster, J. H. (2016). The faculty factor: Reassessing the American academy in a turbulent era. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Maragakis, L. L. (2020, April 9). Coronavirus and COVID-19: Younger adults are at risk, too. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-and-covid-19-younger-adults-are-at-risk-too
Newberry, L. (2020, May 1). The pandemic has amplified ageism. “It’s open season for discrimination” against older adults. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-01/coronavirus-pandemic-has-amplified-ageism
Paxson, C. (2020, April 26). College campuses must reopen in the fall. Here’s how we do it. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/26/opinion/coronavirus-colleges-universities.html
Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Chun is chief learning officer and Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.