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The role of emeritus faculty members can be frustratingly ill-defined, to the point where long-admired university community members find themselves unsure if they have a right to space in a building, access to general resources like libraries and computers or are even valued as institutional and academic resources.

But at Brown University in Rhode Island a group of emeritus professors and administrators have set out to define their role on campus, stand up for their own needs and show and offer the university community the benefits of their ongoing participation in campus life. Psychologist Lewis P. Lipsitt, PhD, an emeritus professor at Brown, founded the group--the executive committee of the Elderbears--in 2002. The group has since expanded the role of emeritus faculty at Brown, whose mascot is the bear.

"I got interested in creating a group when I retired and found that there were legitimate grievances among retirees in terms of space use and access," Lipsitt says. "But it's turned out to not be a grievance society, but one that is working closely with the administration to benefit current faculty and administrators, and students, past and present."

There are myriad ways academics "sunset" themselves that don't include being on campus, Lipsitt says. For example, they might write from home the books and papers they always wished they had time for, volunteer as a museum guide, mentor youth in schools and social agencies or go to work for a think tank.

"But there are some who want to remain very visible on campus, attending lectures, participating in faculty committees and meetings, using the library and computer facilities with great pleasure and continuing to relate closely to the Brown community," Lipsitt says. "A group like the Elderbears is here to advocate for their interests."

The group, which Lipsitt says is deeply collegial because of bonds formed between academics through career-long relationships, is not unique; many such groups have popped up nationally at schools like Yale University and Dartmouth College.

"Many of us have been associated with each other and the university for over 40 years," he says. "That's a hard habit to break, and there's so much to gain from not breaking it."

Echoing him is APA President Diane F. Halpern, PhD, who notes that retired faculty are often wise advisers for students, faculty and administrators.

"They are too valuable to treat poorly," she says.

Unique contributions

The benefits of continued emeriti presence can include curricular consultation, substitute and special-lecture teaching and service on university and department committees. Retirees also sometimes continue their research, especially when it's still bringing in grant funding, Lipsitt says.

Moreover, many students and faculty seek the advice of emeriti, he notes.

"[Students] know of our existence and our previous contributions," says Lipsitt, whose research focus was on infant and child behavior and development. "They want to talk to us and they want to find out what a career in academia is about. There's a very substantial role for us here."

For their part, faculty--particularly younger ones--can benefit greatly too, notes Brown engineering professor Peter Richardson, PhD, who has become active with the Elderbears, though not himself retired.

"Transitioning from finishing a dissertation to being a professor is not something that just happens by standing in the sunlight," Richardson says. "That's the sort of thing that emeriti can mentor effectively and in a way that is not so politicized as other parts of the university."

Building on his point, Halpern says retirees can mentor new faculty especially well "because they will not be making tenure and promotion decisions. New faculty can be honest about their difficulties, and the retired faculty know the unwritten rules for advancement."

The Elderbears also act as a think tank for the university--offering, for example, creative solutions to university problems, says Richardson. Many draw on their academic backgrounds in offering the university advice.

For example, Lipsitt tapped his psychological expertise to inform the administration about what older people can contribute.

"Psychologists have a special role in emeritus groups because we have expertise in both research and practice and have an idea of human developmental issues," he says.

Simple needs

However, emeriti do need suitable office space and clear access to resources like computers, secretarial services and fax machines to have an active role on campus, Lipsitt says.

So the Elderbears are working with university and departmental administrators to bring these issues--and others like travel policies, medical insurance benefits, campus parking privileges and university committee voting rights--up for discussion, Lipsitt says. More often than not, he adds, the biggest problem on these issues is confusion: Neither emeriti nor departmental staff know what's allowed, and once that's sorted out, usually emeriti can get what they need with little trouble to their departments. But there are larger issues at stake too, points out Richardson, who is also Brown's parliamentarian. Most emeriti, depending on their particular arrangement with the university, live off individual retirement savings and are insured mainly through Medicare and supplementary policies, paid for by the retirees.

"Questions have arisen recently about what happens when Medicare doesn't cover something," Richardson says. "So far the university has not stepped in when care has been declining, but this is one of the issues at hand."

Lipsitt, who according to Richardson is a good Elderbears leader because of his clinical psychology skills in consulting and listening, has a bigger, more global dream for Brown emeriti too: He hopes to develop plans and resources to create a dedicated space for emeriti on campus--a floor or a building where emeriti could congregate and use office services freely, without being a burden to their departments.

"It's turning out to be a very interesting and desirable group to have around," he says. "I'm hoping our presence on campus just continues to grow."