I’m a ‘professor emeritus’. Gosh, that sounds good, doesn’t it? The word ‘merit’ embedded there, in the fancy Latin, must denote something special, more than a mere ‘professor’? (Those are two a penny nowadays.)
Actually, no. All it means is that I’m retired. To those in the know it denotes that I’m old, past it, out to grass. I no longer have to work at professing. The ‘emeritus’ thing is bestowed, I think, on all professors on leaving their final jobs. The title looks more distinguished than it is.
That said, it’s also indicative of something else. That ‘something’ is what used to be called ‘collegiality’. The idea probably derives from the older English universities, where a ‘college’ (their basic building blocks) was regarded as a community of scholars, from the highest (the ‘Master’) to the lowest (freshman undergraduates), and including all those who had formally ‘retired’. Very often the last were still given rooms in college long after their teaching functions had expired. Even outside Oxbridge a retired member of staff could be expected to be given an office somewhere on the campus, if he or she was still engaged in research, to keep their books in and to write from. They were always given free access to the university library and all its facilities, secretarial assistance, and – in modern times – allowed to keep their university email addresses. They stayed on circulation lists for university events, and for departmental seminars, which – again – embraced all parts of the ‘community’, and where retirees, or emeriti, could keep in regular touch. They always turned up – those who still lived locally – to the great pleasure and the intellectual profit of those who remained in harness, as well as of themselves. They weren’t just abandoned, cut off from what had always been more than a ‘job’, but was also a society and an essential aspect of their identity, to which they could contribute mightily even after the formal economic tie – pay in return for teaching – had been broken.
In Britain this ideal doesn’t seem to have broken down yet, though I’ve been away from the university scene there too long to know for sure. I still have library rights, and am invited to events and seminars, at most of the universities I’ve taught at, both in England and abroad. I still feel a part of those communities, and I like to think they accept me as part of them too. There has been no drastic break between us. Collegiality lives on; despite the effects of Thatcherite utilitarianism, and the new and by now notorious breed of university managers’ attempts to undermine collegiality on other fronts.
From what I understand, this isn’t the situation everywhere in the world. A friend of mine (who is retirement age) has just been told that she’s no longer wanted at Stockholm University, an institution she’s served with distinction, and with the enthusiasm both of herself and of her students, for thirty years; told to clear her ‘stuff’ from her room within five days – in insulting terms: the administrator who wrote to her was apparently offended by dog hairs there, and demanded she clean them up herself; had her email address discontinued, without even any automatic forwarding facility; and may have her staff library card taken away.
This is all part of a more ‘managerial’ and ‘top-down’ way of running the university that has apparently crept in recently, with staff treated as mere employees, like in a factory or office, with nothing more than what Carlyle (and after him Marx) called the ‘cash nexus’ to bind them together; no sense of community or collegiality; no appreciation, therefore, of the real and essential quality of academic activity and life. One is surprised to find these things happening in co-operative, consensual and social democratic Sweden. Perhaps it could have done with an Oxford and Cambridge too, in order to root the ‘collegial’ ideal more historically and firmly in its academic mores. (But without Oxbridge’s egregious flaws.)